India began administering booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines to vulnerable groups on Monday, as infections surge to their highest levels in seven months fueled by the omicron variant and crowded cities like New Delhi and Mumbai reimpose restrictions to battle the third wave of the pandemic.
Health care and frontline workers and senior citizens with comorbidities lined up Monday to get what India is calling a “precautionary shot.”
“We raised the demand for boosters for health care workers and doctors four months ago,” said J.A. Jayalal, who was president of the Indian Medical Association until December.“The government has taken the decision a little late, but at least now they will get some protection. That is necessary to ensure that we have sufficient doctors to take care of patients.”
In recent days, as India’s COVID-19 infection rate climbed steeply, hundreds of doctors and health care workers have contracted the virus according to reports in local media. That has led to warnings of staff shortages in hospitals.
Early studies suggesting that booster shots may provide more protection against the highly transmissible omicron variant have prompted several countries to expand booster programs.
In India, with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, roughly two-thirds of adults have been fully vaccinated while over 90 percent have received one shot. Last week, the inoculation program was also extended to those between 15 and 18 years old.
India’s vaccination program picked up pace after the country was devastated by a deadly second wave last summer. At that time authorities had been strongly criticized for mismanaging the crisis – most people were unprotected when the delta variant tore through the country while acute shortages of oxygen and hospital beds had overwhelmed the health care system.
As numbers surge again, authorities say they are better equipped to fight the third wave of infections -- oxygen facilities have been ramped up and hospital beds set aside to cope with a new wave.
Most of the infections are also reported to be milder this time, giving rise to some optimism.
“Rising COVID cases are a matter of concern but there is no need to panic. Very few people are getting hospitalized,” Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said Sunday.
In the past week, as numbers have grown exponentially, worst hit cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, are bringing back restrictions – cinema halls, gyms, schools and colleges that opened just months ago have been shut and large events cancelled. Delhi has also imposed a weekend curfew.
However, authorities have announced that they will hold elections to choose local governments starting next month in five states, including the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.
But the Election Commission has temporarily banned political rallies – it faced strong criticism last year for allowing massive rallies during a regional election even as cases of COVID-19 were spiraling in the country. The rallies had been flagged by public health experts as super spreader events.
On Monday, India reported 179,723 new cases of COVID-19. India is the world’s second worst affected country by the pandemic – it has so far recorded more than 35 million COVID-19 cases and about 484,000 deaths from the virus, although many believe that the toll could be much higher.