Although omicron is more infectious than the delta variant, officials say that the rate of hospitalization is likely to be lower. Also, hospitals are better prepared now than they were last year.

At the beginning of December, two people in the southern state of Karnataka tested positive for the omicron variant of the coronavirus, marking India’s first recorded cases of the strain.

Now, the South Asian nation is seeing a surge in infections, with tens of thousands of new cases. Over 120 deaths were reported in the last 24 hours, according to data from the country’s health ministry.

“India is clearly in its third wave of COVID-19. The whole wave seems to be driven by the new variant,” N K Arora, chairman of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (NTAGI), told DW.

The NTAGI provides the government with guidance on vaccinations, following scientific reviews of the effects of immunization policy and programs.

Arora added that major cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata have a combined 75% share of infections of the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The capital Delhi, which has been witnessing a steady rise in cases, reported 4,099 new cases in the last 24 hours, marking the highest number of new infections in the city in seven months.

Those new cases brought the positivity rate up to 6.46% from just 4.59% a day earlier.

“If the positivity rate stays at over 5% for more than two days, a red alert could be issued under the Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP). In that case, curbs like a total curfew and closure of various establishments to prevent crowding will be enforced. A yellow alert is currently in force in Delhi,” a senior government official told DW.

Omicron responsible for majority of positive tests
According to genome sequencing reports, omicron has been found in 84% of COVID samples recently tested.

Mumbai, on the other hand, recorded 7,928 fresh cases, pushing the rate of test positivity to 16.39%.

The city also recorded two COVID-related deaths over the past 24 hours, a health bulletin said.

Meanwhile, the eastern state of Odisha also recorded its highest single-day jump in cases in over three months on Tuesday, as 680 more people tested positive.

The reproduction rate of the virus, or the rate at which the virus spreads, which largely remained below the replacement level of 1.0 since last June, has also ticked upward, reaching 1.37 on January 1.

Given the rapid rise in cases, the government has already reduced the physical attendance of both government and private employees in offices by 50%.

People with disabilities and pregnant women have also been exempted from going into offices. Schools, colleges, gyms, swimming pools and parks have been shut down in several states and nighttime curfews have been ordered.

Indian hospitals better prepared than last year
However ominous the new wave is, India is better prepared than it was during last year’s disastrous second wave, which was fueled by the delta variant.

Experts and virologists emphasize that there are reasons for cautious optimism given that the government has massively ramped up supply and streamlined distribution of medical oxygen.

Dozens of hospitals now have their own production units, and the country’s overall capacity for COVID-19 patients is estimated to have grown by 50%. Figures show that the country now has an inventory of 720,000 hospital beds and has a larger supply of medical oxygen, even in rural areas.

At the height of the second wave in April and May, the daily number of new infections often exceeded 400,000, overwhelming the health care infrastructure, which struggled with acute shortages of hospital beds, critical medicines and equipment.

Epidemiological model developers from the Indian Institute of Technology have predicted a peak in omicron infections in February, followed by a retreat in March.

‘Unlikely matters will get out of control’
In a briefing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also advised state governments to “activate the war rooms” that officials had put in place during the delta wave.

“We are far more prepared than we were at the beginning of 2021 and at the end of the second wave,” Arora added.

Vineeta Bal, an immunologist at the Pune-based Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, said the government is closely monitoring the unfolding scenario, and developing plans to strengthen the capacity to handle large number of cases, if they happen.

“Nobody has a clear picture of how devastating the spread of omicron will be,” Bal told DW.

“It is very unlikely that matters will get out of control. This is because of the lower hospitalization rate for people infected with omicron,” Giridhar R Babu, an epidemiologist, told DW. He added that the higher number of medical supplies and hospital beds also helps.

India is also hoping that the swift rate of vaccination and rising immunity among the population will result in lower rates of hospitalizations. With around 1.45 billion doses delivered, 44% of the eligible population has been double-jabbed and over 61% have received the first shot.

Meanwhile, the country started vaccinating children between the ages of 15 and 18. on Monday. According to government figures, there are around 100 million children in this age bracket.

Doctors warn of omicron’s dangers
Doctors are still warning of dangers, although available evidence so far shows that omicron is less likely to cause severe disease or death than other COVID-19 variants.

The sheer size of the country’s population and the prevalence of aggravating factors such as high rates of malnutrition, diabetes and tuberculosis could still place millions at high risk. Front-line workers and senior citizens who are immunocompromised are also particularly vulnerable.

“Community preparedness has increased but that is no guarantee. What pathways of distress this wave will take is still uncertain. Going by the experience in South Africa, we just hope this wave is not so severe,” Vandana Prasad, a pediatrician, told DW.

Edited by: Leah Carter/ Copyright DW

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