A fire in a COVID-19 hospital ward in western India killed 18 patients as the country grappling with the world’s worst outbreak stepped up a vaccination drive for all adults even though some states say they do not have enough jabs.
India on Saturday set yet another daily global record with 401,993 new coronavirus cases, taking its tally to more than 19.1 million. Another 3,523 people died in the past 24 hours, raising the overall deaths to 211,853, according to the health ministry. Experts believe both figures are an undercount.
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The fire broke out in a COVID-19 ward on the ground floor and was extinguished within an hour, police said. The cause was being investigated.
It started around midnight in the intensive care ward of the Patel Welfare Hospital, a designated COVID-19 facility, in Bharuch city, 185km (115 miles) north of the state’s main commercial city, Ahmedabad.
“Sixteen patients and two staff members have died in the fire. Twelve of them died due to fire and smoke,” said RV Chudasama, a superintendent of police in Bharuch. “Preliminary investigation shows the fire was caused because of a short circuit.”
But Dushyant Patel, a state government official, said leakage from an oxygen cylinder in the intensive care unit started the blaze.
Local news channels showed footage of a hospital ward completely destroyed.
“There was a lot of chaos because of the scale of the fire … Hospital staff rushed my family members out from the ward and we used our car to take them to another hospital,” said Parth Gandhi, whose two relatives, both COVID-19 patients, escaped the disaster.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet he was “pained by the loss of lives due to a fire at a hospital in Bharuch”.
Pained by the loss of lives due to a fire at a hospital in Bharuch. Condolences to the bereaved families.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) May 1, 2021
Thirty-one other patients at the Welfare Hospital were rescued by hospital workers and firefighters and their condition was stable, said police officer BM Parmar.
On April 23, a fire in an intensive care unit killed 13 COVID-19 patients in the Virar area on the outskirts of Mumbai.
Faced with an unprecedented surge in cases that has filled hospitals and crematoriums, Modi’s government described the pandemic as a “once-in-a-century crisis”.
Modi held a cabinet meeting on Friday that discussed steps to save the country’s crumbling health system by adding hospital beds, resolving issues in vaccine production, storage and transport of oxygen, and tackling the shortage of essential medicines.
Indian capital New Delhi will stay in lockdown for another week because of the surge in COVID cases, the city’s chief minister said on Saturday.
“Lockdown in Delhi is being extended by one week,” Arvind Kejriwal said on Twitter.
The current shutdown had been due to expire on Monday but the number of cases is still rising fast in the city of 20 million people.
Desperate COVID patients, meanwhile, continued to arrive at hospitals on Saturday despite a shortage of beds.
Gasping for air, 62-year-old Vijay Gupta was turned away by Holy Family Hospital, a non-profit private facility in the southeast of India’s capital as all of its 385 beds being full. Waiting outside the hospital, his family and friends debated what to do next.
“We have been roaming around since 6am looking for a bed,” said Gupta’s friend Rajkumar Khandelwal. “Where shall we go?”
The government on Saturday shifted its faltering vaccination campaign into high gear by saying all adults – people aged 18 and above – were getting their shots.
Since January, nearly 10 percent of Indians have received one dose, but only 1.5 percent have received both, even though India is one of the world’s biggest producers of vaccines.
Some states have said they do not have enough doses for everyone. Even the continuing efforts to inoculate people above 45 is stuttering.
The state of Maharashtra said it will not be able to start the inoculation of younger people on Saturday. Satyender Jain, the health minister of Delhi state, said earlier this week the capital territory does not have enough doses to vaccinate people aged between 18 and 44.
Australian residents and citizens who have been in India will be banned from entering Australia as of Monday and those who disobey will face fines and jail, government officials said. The temporary emergency determination, issued late on Friday, is the first time Australia has made it a criminal offence for its citizens to return home.
The United States, meanwhile, joined the growing list of countries restricting travel from India, the White House said, citing a devastating rise in COVID-19 cases and the emergence of potentially dangerous variants of the coronavirus.
US President Joe Biden spoke on Monday with Modi about the growing health crisis and pledged to immediately send assistance. This week, the US began delivering therapeutics, rapid virus tests, and oxygen to India, along with some materials needed for India to boost its domestic production of COVID-19 vaccines.
Additionally, a team of public health experts was expected to be on the ground soon to help Indian health officials move to slow the spread of the virus.
Other nations have also sent assistance, and the Indian air force airlifted oxygen containers from Singapore, Dubai and Thailand.