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India Covid surge hits new records amid vanishing oxygen supplies

NEW DELHI, India: India’s Covid-19 outbreak has set new records with 2,023 deaths in 24 hours – the highest single-day tally for the country so far – as hospitals run perilously low on oxygen amid rising demand for beds.

Coronavirus infections also rose by a record, increasing by 295,041 over the last 24 hours, the health ministry data showed on Wednesday. Total deaths reached 182,553.

India’s overall case tally is now at 15.6 million, second only to the United States which has over 31 million infections.

But Indian hospitals are scrambling to shore up supplies of medical oxygen amid rising demand for beds as a fast-spreading second wave of coronavirus stretches the country’s chronically underfunded medical infrastructure to breaking point, officials and doctors said.

Seema Gandotra, sick with the coronavirus, gasped for breath in an ambulance for 10 hours, as it tried unsuccessfully at six hospitals in India’s sprawling capital, New Delhi, to find an open bed.

By the time she was admitted, it was too late, and the 51-year-old died hours later.

Rajiv Tiwari, whose oxygen levels began falling after he tested positive for the virus, has the opposite problem: He identified a hospital that could accommodate him but the 30-something resident of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh state could not get to it.

“There is no ambulance to take me to the hospital,” he said.

Indian hospitals are understaffed and overflowing. Intensive care units are full. Nearly all ventilators are in use and the dead are piling up at crematoriums and graveyards.

Delhi’s government hospitals reported they only had enough oxygen to last another eight to 24 hours while some private ones had enough for just four or five hours.

“We are facing huge problems in oxygen supply but somehow we are managing. Yesterday, it was very critical. We had only four to five hours oxygen in the evening,” said Ronit Kumar, head of Biomedical Engineering at Fortis Escorts Heart Institute.

Replenishment came before dawn on Wednesday, with enough to last through the day, he said, adding they were pushing their suppliers. “Since they are also facing huge requirements, so I don’t know. I have not got confirmation,” he said.

A source at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi, a top private hospital, said staff had a “crazy night” as they ran short of oxygen but two tankers finally arrived after midnight. The hospital has 12 to 14 hours of oxygen left for 200 patients relying on it, the source added.

“We were hand to mouth but hoping the supply levels will increase from today,” said the hospital source, who is not authorised to speak to media.

There were no beds either for Covid-19 patients in about 80 of 142 hospitals in Delhi, according to government data.

Kamla Devi, a 71-year-old diabetic, was rushed to a hospital in New Delhi when her blood sugar levels fell last week. On returning home, her levels plummeted again but this time, there were no beds. She died before she could be tested for the virus.

“If you have corona(virus) or if you don’t, it doesn’t matter. The hospitals have no place for you,” said Dharmendra Kumar, her son.

The government issued a call for help on social media, saying large government hospitals only had enough oxygen to last another eight to 24 hours while some private ones had enough for just four or five hours.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who on Tuesday went into self-isolation after his wife tested positive, tweeted late on Tuesday that some hospitals in the capital “are left with just a few hours of oxygen”.

The city’s health minister, Satyendar Jain, urged the federal government to “restore oxygen supply chain to avert a major crisis”.

Hospitals in the western state of Maharashtra and its teeming capital Mumbai, the epicentre of the surge, were also experiencing dire shortages, press reports said.

“Normally we would shift some patients to other hospitals… none in the city have spare oxygen,” NDTV channel quoted one doctor in the state as saying.