ICU beds full as COVID-19 cases surge in Indian capital


Despite a drop in COVID-19 cases in India, the capital city of Delhi is reporting a surge in infections, with many people struggling to find access to Intensive Care Unit (ICU) spaces.

It comes as Delhi's 20 million residents gear up to celebrate the Diwali festival, this weekend.

Despite a ban, thousands of fireworks are likely to be set off, adding to the already poor pollution levels and raising the risk posed by COVID-19.

The capital reported 8,593 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, its highest daily tally yet.

The average pollution reading was 299 on Thursday on a scale of 500, where any number above 300 is classified as very poor and can cause respiratory illnesses.

ICU facilities in the city are in such short supply that some hospitals are squeezing more beds into existing wards ahead of the weekend.

"We are firefighting because Diwali is looking like a super spreader event in front of us and the public just doesn't see the threat," said a senior health department official in Delhi, declining to be named.

New Delhi's sprawling bazaars have been swarming with shoppers ahead of Diwali and the wedding season after the government relaxed regulations in a bid to breathe life into the lockdown-hit economy. Mask-wearing is common but social distancing is not, and infections may spike in the coming days.

The city was one of the first in the country to restart economic activity after the lockdown that started in March, letting restaurants, malls and other businesses restart to avoid spiralling joblessness.

India has so far reported around 8.6 million coronavirus infections - the world's second-highest after the United States - and 127,571 deaths. But overall, it has been adding fewer cases daily since a mid-September peak, and its fatality figure of 92 per million people is well below the world's tally of 160 and the United States' 711.

Still, the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research says the recent fall in cases nationally could be undone if there is a resurgence in infections around Diwali.

Federal authorities have asked the local government in the capital to prepare resources to handle as many as 15,000 cases a day and test more aggressively.

Over half of the city's 16,511 COVID hospital beds were occupied as of Wednesday, government data showed, with more than 24,000 other patients isolating at home. There is no separate data for ICU beds.

Delhi's government said hundreds of more beds have been reserved for COVID-19 patients in nearly two dozen private and government hospitals. More than 100 ICU beds are also being added in government setups.

"Most of the cases are coming from working-class people, those aged between 20 and 50, those who are very active," Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain told Reuters partner ANI, indicating these victims may not need critical care.

He did not respond to e-mailed questions from Reuters.

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