India prepares to tackle third-wave of COVID-19, increases oxygen capacity

As COVID-19 cases and deaths exploded in India in April and May, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi and several others had so little oxygen that many patients suffocated to death.

India: As COVID-19 cases and deaths exploded in India in April and May, Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi and several others had so little oxygen that many patients suffocated to death in the capital.

When Reuters visited the hospital on Friday, his last coronavirus patient was ready to leave after recovery – a remarkable turnaround by health experts attributed to increasing immunity to natural infections and implementation of vaccination campaigns.

But many hospitals have learned from bitter encounter during the second COVID wave, when funeral fires continued to burn and corpses lie along the banks of the holy Ganges River, while India is ready for another possible increase in infections during its festive season in September to November.

Beds have been added to facilities across the country, and hospitals are working to ensure enough oxygen.

Ganga Ram increases its oxygen storage capacity by 50%, lays a kilometer-long pipeline that transports the gas directly to COVID ICUs, and installs equipment to keep the oxygen flow high.

It also ordered an on-site oxygen generation plant, which is mostly manufactured in Europe and which could take months to arrive, given the growing demand in the world.

“In view of the possibility of the emergence of coronavirus mutants, with higher transmissibility and immune damage, the hospital continues to prepare for the worst,” said Satendra Katoch, medical director of the hospital, among colleagues who have an internal audit of the hospital facilities.

However, the overcrowded private hospital said it had no room to add more beds. During the peak period of the second wave in India, Ganga Ram expanded its capacity by almost 50% to about 600 beds, yet about 500 patients a day had to be placed on a waiting list for admission, according to Dr. Varun Prakash, who manages it, has war room during the crisis.

Nationally, India has added many more hospital beds in recent months, importing more than 100 oxygen carriers to increase the total to about 1,250. Companies like Linde (LIND.NS) (LIN.N) plan to increase the country’s overall gas production by 50% to 15,000 tons per day.

Linde told Reuters that it retained 60 out of about 80 cryogenic containers – intended to hold supercooled oxygen – which brought it out of overseas operations in case demand increased again.

“The distribution infrastructure and logistics fell short during the second wave,” said Moloy Banerjee, head of Linde South Asia.

The federal government, meanwhile, has approved the construction of nearly 1,600 oxygen-generating plants in hospitals, though fewer than 300 were erected early last month as imports take time.

Almost all states are preparing special pediatric wards, as some experts warn that unvaccinated children may be vulnerable to new virus mutations. States, including Madhya Pradesh, also stockpile antiviral drugs such as Remdesivir.

But with a government survey estimating that two-thirds of Indians already have antibodies to COVID infection, and 57% of adults with at least an initial dose of vaccine, many health experts believe that any new outbreak of infection could be many less devastating than the second wave.

“The number of susceptible people will now be less, as many people are infected or vaccinated,” said epidemiologist and cardiologist K. Srinath Reddy, president of the Public Health Foundation of India.

“Even if reinfections or breakthrough infections occur, they are likely to be mild and mostly managed at home. The serious gaps in health care delivery that were evident in the second wave are less likely.”

Kerala sees all such signs. The southern state currently has the largest number of infections, including many under vaccinated or partially vaccinated residents, but the mortality rate is far below the national figure.

With 33.1 million, India reported the most COVID-19 cases after the United States, with 441,042 deaths. It administered 698.4 million vaccine doses – at least one dose in 57% of its 944 million adults and two doses in 17%.

The Ministry of Health, which wants to immunize the entire adult population of India this year, did not respond to a request for comment on the preparations for a possible third wave.

The epidemiologist and public health specialist, Chandrakant Lahariya, said the data and trends are encouraging.

“With the emerging evidence that a single dose for individuals with an infection in the past may provide much greater antibodies than people who have not had an infection or received both shots of vaccines,” says India.