On a day when India's total coronavirus cases crossed the grim benchmark of 2 crore, Supreme Court warned that the country needs to be prepared for a potentially more harmful third wave of COVID-19, which experts say could also infect children and young adults who were mostly considered safe up till now.
The apex court also emphasised the need to create buffer stock of oxygen as India struggles to boost production capacity and transport the life saving gas where it is needed.
A study by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology had earlier reveaeled that a new and more virulent strain prevalent in south India is infecting young adults previously considered comparatively safe.
"The major strains identified from the samples of south India (AP, Karnataka, Telangana), from the positives of the April month data, are B.1.617 and B.1, which are very infectious and also spreading in the younger age groups apart from the adults," the study said.
India's coronavirus deaths rose by a record 3,780 during the last 24 hours, a day after the country became the world's second, after the United States, to cross the grim milestone of 2 crore total cases mark. Daily cases rose by 3,82,315 to 2,06,65,148 since the pandemic broke out in January 2020. India has recorded more than 3 lakh cases a day for nearly 15 days in a row, since 22 April.
The number of new confirmed cases in India on Thursday breached 4,00000 for the second time since the devastating surge began last month. The 4,12,262 new cases pushed the country's official tally to more than 2 crore.
The health ministry also reported 3,980 deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 2,30,168. Experts believe both figures are an undercount.
However, the health ministry tried to shift focus on the fact that the recoveries too, have risen.
Experts believe that the positivity rate is a better reflection of the virus spread than absolute numbers.
Positivity rate is the percentage of people who test positive for the virus compared to the total number of people who have been tested. A high value of positivity rate suggests a high coronavirus infection rate, implying a greater prevalence of the disease. The WHO recommends a positivity rate of less than five percent for at least two weeks before a state can cut back on curbs.
But according to covid19india.org, a crowdsourced initiative to log the spread of pandemic, only 11 states and UTs are currently maintaining a positivity rate under five percent. And this is when India has been underperforming in terms of tests per million population.
India has conducted 29.7 crore tests for a population of 133.3 crore. And these tests do not necessarily indicate unique samples, because some people get tested multiple times for COVID-19 to confirm or track the progress of the diagnosis.
Railways cancel slew of premium trains
The Northern Railways on Thursday cancelled a slew of trains including Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto Express, citing low patronisation and rising coronavirus cases.
The to-and-fro services of eight Shatabdi Express, two Rajdhani Express, two Duronto Express and one Vande Bharat Express are among around 28 trains that have been cancelled "till further advice" by the Northern Railways.
Among these are Shatabdis originating from Delhi to places like Kalka, Habibganj, Amritsar, Chandigarh, Rajdhani trains from Delhi to Chennai, Bilaspur, Duronto trains to Jammu Tawi and Pune.
The Central Railways has cancelled 23 passenger trains. These include Nagpur-Kolhapur special up to June 29, the CSMT-Kolhapur special up to July 1, the CSMT-Pune special up to 30 June.
Kerala, MP, Sikkim impose lockdown
The Kerala government on Thursday announced a nine-day complete lockdown from the morning of 8 May to arrest the massive spread of COVID-19 in the state. The lockdown was announced on a day Kerala reported the highest ever single day spurt in positive cases adding 42,464 fresh COVID-19 cases.
As per the guidelines, offices of Central Government, state government and their autonomous and subordinate offices and public corporations shall remain closed.
Exceptions have been made for public health professionals and frontline workers.
Lockdown-like restrictions were also imposed in Sikkim starting Thursday till May 16 amid a surge in COVID-19 cases. Curfew will be imposed from 5 pm to 9 am, as per a government order. All business establishments throughout the state will be allowed to remain open from 10 am to 4 pm and will remain completely shut on Saturdays and Sundays.
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan on Thursday said the only way to break the chain of transmission and contain COVID-19 cases is for people to "close down everything" till 15 May.
"We can't shut things for too long, but with more than 18 percent positivity, we can't remain open," he was quoted as saying by NDTV. On Thursday, Madhya Pradesh reported 12,421 coronavirus cases and 86 fatalities in 24 hours.
Delhi breathes easy as SC orders ramp up of oxygen supply
Under an order by the Supreme Court, Centre agreed on Thursday to provide more medical oxygen to hospitals in the Natioanl Capital, potentially easing a two-week-old shortage that worsened the country's exploding coronavirus crisis.
Government officials also denied reports that they have been slow in distributing life-saving supplies donated from abroad.
The government raised the oxygen supply to 730 tons from 490 tons per day in New Delhi as ordered by the Supreme Court. The court intervened after 12 COVID-19 patients, including a senior doctor, died at New Delhi's Batra Hospital when it ran out of medical oxygen for 80 minutes last week.
Earlier in the day, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had assured that his administration "won't let anyone die" of oxygen shortage if it got the earmarked 700 tonnes of supply every day from the central government.
Meanwhile, the Delhi government also attracted stringent remarks from the Delhi High Court earlier in the day as a patient petitioned the court over shortage of ICU beds in the National Capital.
Slamming the Kejriwal government, the court said that the existing medical infrastructure in the National Capital was "exposed" and in "shambles" when put to the test during the pandemic.
"Now you are behaving like the ostrich with its head in the sand. When you defend this situation, then you are not rising above the politics. We always call a spade a spade," a bench of Justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli said to senior advocate Rahul Mehra, appearing for the Delhi government when he argued that the court may not say the medical infrastructure was in shambles.
Meanwhile, another bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh sought response of the Centre and Delhi government on a plea alleging that the number of ICU and non-ICU beds in two dedicated COVID hospitals were slashed by more than half due to oxygen shortage and seeking directions to restore the bed capacity in them.
On Wednesday night, 11 other COVID-19 patients died when the pressure in an oxygen line dropped suddenly at a government medical college hospital in Chengalpet in southern India, possibly because of a faulty valve, The Times of India reported.
Hospital authorities said they repaired the oxygen line last week, but the consumption of oxygen had doubled since then, the newspaper said.
Meanwhile, the government's claims that there was no dearth of medical grade oxygen appears to be at odds with the situation on the ground as numerous deaths due to the shortage of this life-saving treatment were recorded within the past seven days.
Oxygen shortage a myth, insists govt but overburdened hospitals tell different tale
Health minister Harsh Vardhan said India has enough oxygen but is facing capacity constraints in moving it. Most oxygen is produced in the eastern parts of India while the demand has risen in northern and western parts, the Centre said.
However, media reports from various states as well as individual accounts of suffering paint a drastically different picture.
The Wire reported that at least 178 COVID patients have lost their lives due to a shortage of oxygen since last month. Another 70 deaths have been attributed to an oxygen shortage by patients' families, but this has been denied by the authorities, the report added. Aditi Priya, a researcher at Krea University, has compiled a Twitter thread of media reports citing oxygen shortage as the reason for the death of patients, which adds up to a whopping 248 at last count.
And these are just the numbers culled from media headlines. The alleged shortage, created by the pandemic, has also costed the lives of non-COVID patients who were on oxygen support: the Chamarajanagar incident is a case in point where 24 patients died due to alleged shortage of oxygen, only three among the dead were COVID positive.
Today's exchange between the advocates representing Delhi government and the Centre in Supreme Court on this very subject also punches holes in the official stand.
The counsel representing the Centre said in court that two Oxygen Express trains are in transit but keeping the pan India situation in mind, the Centre cannot keep on giving 700MT of oxygen to Delhi as it will deprive other states of equitable distribution.
The Delhi government's counsel reminded the Centre of its previous claim that there was no shortage of oxygen stock. He said the Centre has said in its affidavit filed in the top court that there is no dearth of oxygen in the country and they have a reserve of 16,000 MT, thus giving a deficit 210 MT of oxygen to Delhi will not make other states suffer.
Demand for hospital oxygen has increased sevenfold since last month, The Associated Press quoted a government official as saying. India on Tuesday started ferrying oxygen tankers from Bahrain and Kuwait in the Persian Gulf, officials said.
Most hospitals in India don't have their own plants that generate oxygen for patients, as a result, hospitals typically rely on liquid oxygen, which can be stored in cylinders and transported in tank trucks. But amid the virus surge, supplies in hard-hit places such as New Delhi have run critically short.
Dr Himaal Dev, chief of the critical care unit at Apollo Hospital in Bengaluru, said COVID-19 patients in ICU wards require at least 10-15 litres of oxygen per minute because of their reduced lung function.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviewed the coronavirus situation with top officials on Thursday and told them to ramp up the vaccination drive.
The country, with nearly 140 crore people, has so far administered 16.2 crore doses but is facing vaccine shortages.
The United States, Britain, Germany and several other nations are rushing therapeutics, rapid virus tests and oxygen, along with materials needed to boost domestic production of vaccines to ease pressure on the country's fragile health infrastructure.
India's vaccine production is expected to get a boost with the United States supporting a waiver of intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines.
Vaccine components from the US that have arrived in India will enable the manufacture of 2 crore doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, said Daniel B Smith, the senior diplomat at the US Embassy in New Delhi.
Last month, Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest vaccine maker, appealed to US president Joe Biden to lift the embargo on US export of raw materials, which he said was affecting its production of COVID-19 shots.
The government meanwhile described as "totally misleading" Indian media reports that it took seven days to come up with a procedure for distributing urgent medical supplies that started arriving from overseas on 25 April.
It said in a statement that a mechanism for allocating supplies received by India has been put in place for effective distribution. The Indian Red Cross Society is involved in distributing the supplies from abroad, it said.
With inputs from agencies