India began administering COVID-19 vaccine boosters to front-line workers and vulnerable elderly people on Monday, with the Omicron variant fuelling an almost eight-fold rise in daily infections over the past 10 days.
The health ministry said only 5% to 10% of the infected have sought hospitalisation, compared with 20% to 23% during the Delta-driven last wave that peaked in May. Authorities in the cities of Delhi and Mumbai say most people have shown no or only minor symptoms and have recovered quickly at home.
“The situation is dynamic and evolving, therefore, the need for hospitalisation may also change rapidly,” Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan wrote in a letter to state authorities asking them to regularly review staffing levels.
India reported 179,723 new cases on Monday, many of them in its biggest cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, where the fast-spreading Omicron variant has overtaken Delta as the most prevalent strain of the virus.
There were 146 deaths reported on Monday, bringing the toll to 483,936 since the pandemic began in early 2020. Only the United States and Brazil have recorded more deaths.
In recent days, hundreds of healthcare and other front-line workers including police have contracted the virus, and there were media reports that hundreds of parliamentary staff have also tested positive ahead of a budget session on Feb. 1.
Facing a third wave of infections, the government sent booster reminders to more than 10 million people who took their second dose of the Covaxin or Covishield shot nine months ago.
Unlike many countries, India is not mixing and matching vaccines.
Only healthcare personnel, other front-line workers and people over the age of 60 and suffering from other health conditions are eligible for what the government calls a “precaution dose”. Nearly 500,000 such doses had been administered by Monday afternoon.
Despite the increase in infections, five states including the most populous of Uttar Pradesh will hold state assembly elections starting on Feb. 10, though authorities have barred political rallies until the middle of this month.
Tasked with protecting India’s near 1.4 billion people from the virus, the government has administered more than 1.5 billion vaccine doses in total. About 67% of the country’s 939 million adults have been double vaccinated.
India’s overall COVID-19 testing level has remained at about 1.5 million a day, well below the capacity of more than 2 million.
Since the pandemic began, India has recorded 35.7 million cases of COVID-19, the highest in the world after the United States.
Government officials have privately said they are working under the assumption that daily infections will surpass the record of more than 414,000 set in May, based on what has happened in countries like the United States, where daily cases have risen past 1 million.