Health Care Workers Hit Hard By COVID in India as Race Begins to Get Vulnerable Boosted

India's health care and front-line workers, and those over age 60, are receiving a third COVID-19 vaccine dose, called a "precautionary shot," as many hospitals are already understaffed.

Although India is better prepared now than last March with new oxygen plants and additional hospital beds, new cases soared to over 179,000 on Monday.

While the Omicron variant seems to be less severe than the Delta variant, some experts said they are worried about what might happen in strained health systems if the infection reaches vulnerable people.

Dr. Vineeta Bal, an immunologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune, said the biggest fear is that sick medical personnel will overwhelm the hospitals.

"There would be beds [in hospitals] but no people to take care of individuals," she said.

Health care workers are already getting sick with the new variant, further impacting India's short-staffed hospitals. To cope with the staff shortages, federal hospitals started relaxing quarantine and isolation mandates, while others stopped routine services and treatments.

"Every third doctor is either symptomatic or positive. There is an acute shortage of staff. And there is an acute crisis," said Dr. Anuj Aggarwal at New Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital, one of India's largest government hospitals.

Dr. Prabhat Kumar, head of the COVID-19 unite at the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi city, said nearly 200 health workers—about one-quarter of the staff—are sick.

While hospitalizations are still relatively low, they are starting to rise in large cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, an Indian epidemiologist, said roughly 47 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. Others might have antibodies from previous infections or "hybrid immunity"—a combination of immunity of earlier infections and vaccines.

The "precautionary" shots are being administered to high-risk groups who were among the first to receive vaccines last year and whose immunity may be waning.

Third Vaccine India
India's health care and front-line workers, and those over age 60, are receiving a third COVID-19 vaccine dose, called a "precautionary shot." Above, a health worker inoculates a woman with a third vaccine dose in a hospital in Amritsar, India, on January 10, 2022, as the country sees an Omicron-driven surge in cases. NARINDER NANU/Getty Images

The delay in providing boosters could be costly, said Dr. T. Jacob John, former chief of virology at Christian Medical College in southern India. He said that having to administer third shots as a surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals would put an additional burden on health workers.

Many Indian citizens will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine produced by India's Serum Institute, the same vaccine as before. The benefits of this are "relatively limited," and India had been hoping to have more vaccines available to mix the booster shots Lahariya said.

"India does not have that kind of choice," Lahariya said.

Serum Institute's AstraZeneca vaccine accounts for nearly 90 percent of all doses that have been administered in India, even though emergency approvals have been given to eight vaccines.

Some Indian vaccine makers have had manufacturing woes, while others such as Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have asked for protection from lawsuits over side effects, which India has been reluctant to grant.

India's vaccine drive has also been patchy. Around 30 percent of the population over age 60 wasn't fully vaccinated as of the end of 2021, and vaccinations for those below 18, about a third of India's population, started just last week.

Dr. Ravindra Kumar Dewan, who heads the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases in New Delhi, waited for his shot. He said boosters are a "significant step" because there are still many unknowns about the Omicron variant.

"Yesterday, the mortality...has increased in Delhi. So, whether our health care system will get overwhelmed or not is yet to be seen," he said.

The rate of vaccinations also varies vastly among states, from 75 percent in northern Himachal Pradesh state to 31 percent in eastern Jharkhand state, among India's poorest.

"These gaps will certainly get exposed," Bal said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.