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India virus cases pass 9M; capital’s hospitals under strain

A health worker takes a sample to test for COVID-19 test at a market place in New Delhi, India, Thursday. India’s total number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began has crossed 9 million. Nevertheless the country’s new daily cases have seen a steady decline for weeks now and the total number of cases represents 0.6% of India’s 1.3 billion population. (AP photo)

NEW DELHI — Intensive care wards in New Delhi’s hospitals are nearly at capacity, and the city’s main crematorium is packed, as the coronavirus has surged in the Indian capital and the country hit a grim milestone Friday, recording 9 million infections.

While the pace of recorded new cases overall in the country of 1.3 billion appears to be slowing, experts have cautioned that official figures may be offering false hope since many infections may be going undetected. In New Delhi, meanwhile, the disease is on the rise, and health officials found this week that the prevalence of infections in markets was much higher than expected, and the city has added an average of 6,700 new cases each day in recent weeks.

Despite that, markets are still full there and in other major cities, as fatigue with wearing masks and maintaining a safe distance from others set in during the recent festival season, including celebrations for the Diwali holiday. Experts worry that get-togethers for the festival of light will yield yet another surge in cases in the coming weeks.

“The next four weeks are crucial. The road is very bumpy,” said Dr. S.K. Sarin, director of New Delhi’s Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences.

The capital’s health system is under tremendous strain: Government figures showed 90% of the critical care beds with ventilators designated for virus patients and 86% of critical care beds without ventilators were full as of Thursday.

At Aakash Healthcare, a private hospital in New Delhi, all the critical care beds there were full, and many patients were waiting outside the hospital, said Dr. Akshay Budhraja, a pulmonologist. In a particularly worrying sign, young people were increasingly coming in with severe infections, he said.

Budhraja expressed frustration with the lack of understanding about the severity of the disease and the measures needed to slow its spread — not just in markets, but even within the hospital.

Family members of patients who are likely infected with COVID-19 but asymptomatic were roaming around the hospital. “They don’t understand,” he said.

State Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the health system would manage to keep up with the demand. He said New Delhi is hoping to add 1,400 more critical care beds and that all private hospitals have been asked to reserve 80% of their critical care beds, and over 60% of their other beds for virus patients.

“Our doctors, medical superintendents, medical directors and the entire medical fraternity made such tremendous arrangements to manage COVID-19 that Delhi is not witnessing a crisis,” he said.

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