India vaccinates teens aged 15 to 18 as virus cases increase

NEW DELHI (AP) – Indian health authorities on Monday began vaccinating teens in the 15 to 18 age group as more states began enforcing tighter restrictions to arrest a new surge triggered by the infectious omicron variant.

State governments in India administer doses at schools, hospitals and through special vaccination sites amid a rapid rise of coronavirus infections, especially in the country’s densely populated cities.

Ministry of Health data showed that India confirmed more than 33,000 new COVID-19 cases in the last 24 hours. Deaths increased by 123, bringing the total to nearly 482,000.

Authorities say that even though cases have started to grow rapidly, hospitalizations have not increased.

“There is no need to panic,” Delhi Prime Minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Sunday.

India has so far recorded nearly 35 million COVID-19 infections.

The current increase in cases, including that of the omicron variant, is largely concentrated in the major cities of India such as Delhi and the financial capital Mumbai. The country has reported more than 1,700 omicron cases, with the highest number of infections in the western state of Maharashtra.

Many states have imposed new restrictions, including night clocks, restricting seating in bars and restaurants, and banning large public gatherings. The last to enforce such restrictions was the state of West Bengal where the authorities closed all schools and colleges on Sunday.

The new uprising prompted the country’s health minister, Mansukh Mandaviya, on Sunday to urge states to quickly build up medical infrastructure.

To strengthen the public health system, including the addition of beds in intensive care units, Indian lawmakers approved a $ 3.1 billion financial package in August. But less than 17% of those funds have been used so far, the health minister said.

India experienced a devastating increase in infections in April and May last year when more than 400,000 cases were recorded daily at the height of the crisis. This increase was mainly driven by the delta variant and overwhelmed the country’s health care system as hospitals ran out of beds and medical oxygen.

Health experts say the country this time is not witnessing the horrific scenes of last year due to a more inoculated population, but warn that the increase in cases due to the highly transmissible omicron variant could re-energize the health system.

Vineeta Bal, a doctor who studies immune systems at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in the city of Pune, said vaccinating those under the age of 18 was important so that teens could reduce transmission and help protect against it. adults, including those who have other diseases that make them vulnerable to the virus.

“In the omicron context, this is more important because it’s so transferable,” Bal said.

India has so far partially vaccinated almost 90% of its eligible population and almost 64% has received both doses. The government has yet to decide on offering booster shots for adults.

However, health experts are worried because India’s Electoral Commission last week allowed the legislative elections earlier this year to proceed as planned in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous country with more than 200 million people, which has raised fears that the infections can spread without control.

In recent weeks, political leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have visited the state, led rallies and given speeches to crowds. The photos heightened concerns, bringing back memories of last year’s rise, as political parties led mass rallies as infections increased across the country.

Ball, the health expert, said large crowds represent an increased risk, with the virus still there.

“I’m extremely worried about a repeat of last year,” she said.

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