India’s new COVID-19 cases have soared by 90,928 in the past 24 hours, up nearly four-fold since the start of the year, mostly from cities where health officials say the Omicron variant has overtaken Delta.
Cities such as capital New Delhi, Mumbai in the west and Kolkata in the east are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, although without a corresponding rise in hospitalisations.
But fears are growing about a spread to rural areas in coming days in the country now facing a third wave of the pandemic.
Local media reports on Thursday said nearly 500 Omicron infections were found in the past 24 hours, raising the total number of new variant cases in the country to 2,630.
— NDTV (@ndtv) January 6, 2022
On Wednesday, the federal health ministry confirmed the country’s first death linked to the variant, in an elderly man in Rajasthan state who was suffering from diabetes.
Meanwhile, daily deaths on Thursday rose by 325, taking the total to 482,876, as total infections hit 35.11 million
Government officials privately say daily cases in the third wave could surpass the record of more than 414,000 reached last May. They also warn that many people are taking the Omicron variant lightly and are not wearing masks as most cases have been mild.
Top health official Vinod Kumar Paul declined to estimate a new peak but said even mild cases could put pressure on the country’s health systems.
“There is no room for complacency,” he told a weekly media briefing, adding Omicron was driving surges in the cities. “Don’t take it for granted. We don’t know, the system can get overwhelmed, your household can get overwhelmed.”
Nevertheless, the government reduced the number of home quarantine days for mild and asymptomatic patients to a week, from 10 or 14 days previously.
Another official at the briefing said the elderly man from Rajasthan, whom he did not identify by name, died of a heart attack a few days ago. Genetic tests later showed he had been infected by the Omicron variant.
Election rally fears
Despite an increase in cases and restrictions on movement announced in several regions, political parties have continued to hold mass rallies ahead of state elections due in the next weeks and months.
Health authorities plan to meet election commission officials on Thursday over the matter, officials said, as private health experts raise concerns that the rallies would again lead to a big spike in cases, as it had done in April and May last year.
On Wednesday, the southern state of Tamil Nadu, home to manufacturing plants of companies such as Renault-Nissan, Hyundai Motor and Foxconn, announced a one-day lockdown on Sunday and a daily night curfew, with some exceptions for industries.
Many other states or cities have also placed curfews and closed schools.
Mumbai recorded a new daily infection peak of 15,166 on Wednesday, well up on its previous high of just over 11,000 hit last year.
— माझी Mumbai, आपली BMC (@mybmc) January 5, 2022
Nearly 90 percent of new patients had shown no symptoms and only 8 percent were hospitalised, city officials said in a daily health bulletin.
COVID-19 cases nearly doubled in a day in New Delhi to 10,665 on Wednesday, but the state said only 7 percent of its COVID beds were occupied.
New Delhi-based All India Institute of Medical Sciences cancelled a winter holiday for staff between January 5 and 10. Many doctors and nurses have contracted the virus in recent days.
On Tuesday, New Delhi tightened up virus mitigation measures, ordering people to stay home on the weekends, in addition to a night curfew.
Kolkata, a city of about 15 million, accounted for half of the new cases in the eastern state of West Bengal until a few days ago, but cases are now rising in neighbouring districts. The state has reported one of the highest rates of infections in India.
“We are watching the situation in the districts and rural belts where the numbers are also growing,” said Ajay Chakraborty, director of the West Bengal health services who has isolated himself at home after contracting the virus.
Many COVID beds in Kolkata were still empty, Chakraborty said. In the government-run Infectious Diseases and Beliaghata General Hospital, only 75 admissions were recorded on Tuesday despite more than 9,000 new cases, he added.
Experts, meanwhile, have called for hospitals to prepare for the surge in admissions.
“With infections expected to be skyrocketing we need: clear communication about self-care to prevent panic-driven trips to the hospitals,” Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, wrote on Twitter.
“Scale up hospital capacity and optimise care to those who really need it,” she said.