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COVID is spiking in India, further straining the country's health system

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To India now, where omicron has hit - the country suffered the world's biggest and deadliest COVID-19 outbreak last year. Now cases are skyrocketing again. Major cities have imposed curfews. The fear is that even a milder omicron wave could collapse the country's already precarious health system. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Mumbai.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Even before omicron hit, doctors were already sounding the alarm about staffing levels at hospitals across India.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: They marched in white lab coats last month in New Delhi streets, demanding the government listen. Last year, the delta variant collapsed India's health system. Hospitals ran out of ICU beds and oxygen. The outbreak also delayed medical board exams, which meant fewer med students graduated into becoming doctors last summer. And now hospitals are short-staffed.

PRAVIN DHAGE: Since six to seven months, we have a shortage of doctors. That's why we were protesting because we were thinking that we should be prepared.

FRAYER: Dr. Pravin Dhage says his hospital was not prepared for all the omicron's arrival. Mumbai broke records this week for the most new infections in a single day since the pandemic began. And Dr. Dhage is included in those stats. He's sick with COVID himself in an isolation ward in his own Mumbai hospital. Twenty percent of his colleagues are, too.

DHAGE: Some of them are having continuous fever, cold and cough. That's why they need to hospitalize. It's spreading really fast and all.

FRAYER: Health care workers in India aren't eligible for booster shots until next week. And most hospitals here have not been testing staff regularly - only when they have symptoms. Dr. Akash Khobragade is superintendent of another big hospital in Mumbai.

AKASH KHOBRAGADE: The thing is, this wave is more infective than the previous virus. My hospital is getting full. But my ICU, there is still a vacancy.

FRAYER: People are clinging to the idea that omicron appears to be milder than delta. But only about half of Indians are fully vaccinated, and this is a country with already low health care capacity. So it's the volume of cases from this more infectious variant that could collapse hospitals here yet again, says biostatistician Bhramar Mukherjee.

BHRAMAR MUKHERJEE: Even a small fraction of population gets sick and needs hospitalization - maybe not ICU, but hospitalization - and with the existing health care infrastructure, the system is going to crumble.

FRAYER: Indians are still processing the trauma of last year when COVID patients died in hospital parking lots by the dozens, unable to get care. Now they're watching the curve go up, terrified that history might repeat itself.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.