Over 3 lakh new COVID cases for second consecutive day; IAF airlifts empty oxygen containers to filling stations

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New Delhi, Apr 23 (PTI) With India staring at an oxygen shortage and several hospitals scrambling for it including in Delhi, where 25 COVID patients died in Sir Ganga Ram Hospital in a 24-hour span, the Indian Air Force Friday airlifted empty oxygen containers to various filling stations across the country, which recorded over 3 lakh new coronavirus cases for the second consecutive day.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for utilising the industry's full potential to meet the demand of medical oxygen and said Railways and Air Force are being deployed to reduce the transportation time for oxygen tankers.

Besides oxygen tankers and containers, the IAF also airlifted doctors and nursing staff from Kochi, Mumbai, Visakhapatnam and Bengaluru for various hospitals in Delhi, besides transporting essential medicines as well as equipment required by the designated COVID hospitals in various parts of the country.

India is struggling with a second wave of the coronavirus infection and hospitals in several states are reeling under a shortage of medical oxygen and beds in view of a rising number of cases.

Officials said the IAF deployed its transport aircraft C-17, C-130J, IL-76, An-32 and Avro while keeping its Chinook and Mi-17 helicopters on standby.

World leaders also reached out to India and offered their support in dealing with the pandemic.

In a message of solidarity to the Indian people, French President Emmanuel Macron said, 'France is with you in this struggle, which spares no-one. We stand ready to provide our support.' His message was posted on Twitter by French Ambassador to India Emmanuel Lenain.

President of the European Council Charles Michel said India and the EU will discuss possible cooperation in fighting the pandemic at a virtual summit between the two sides on May 8.

The home ministry is coordinating lifting of high-capacity tankers from abroad, including Singapore and the UAE, by Indian Air Force transport planes.

During the day, Union Home Minister Amit Shah reviewed the coronavirus situation in the country and suggested various measures to augment the supply of oxygen for medical purposes.

The Centre asked all states to prepare a list of oxygen producers in their respective jurisdiction and directed them to ensure uninterrupted supply and transport of oxygen in the places where there is a demand.

A home ministry expert group is also optimising and rationalising the allocation of oxygen to various states and union territories keeping in view the active cases and to reduce time for movement of medical oxygen, a statement said.

The defence ministry, meanwhile, has decided to airlift 23 mobile oxygen generation plants from Germany. Officials said each plant will have a capacity to produce 40 litres of oxygen per minute and 2,400 litres per hour.

In another move, the ministry has decided to give extension to 238 short service commissioned doctors in the Armed Forces Medical Services (AFMS) till December 31 to tide over the current situation.

Principal Spokesperson in the defence ministry A Bharat Bhushan Babu said the oxygen generation plants will be deployed in the AFMS hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. Earlier, Modi held a virtual meeting with leading oxygen manufacturers, including Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries, and urged the industry to utilise tankers meant to transport other gases for oxygen supply, saying the time now is not only to deal with the challenges but also to provide solutions in a very short time.

He stressed the need to maintain good coordination between the government and the oxygen producers.

He also chaired a high-level meeting with chief ministers of 11 states and union territories with maximum COVID-19 cases and urged them to work as one and coordinate with one another to fulfil medical requirements, asserting that 'if we work as one nation, there will not be any scarcity of resources'.

Modi asserted that every state should ensure that no oxygen tanker, irrespective of its destination, is stopped or gets stranded.

At the meeting, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said the Centre should take over all oxygen plants through the Army as he apprehended that a 'big tragedy' may happen due to oxygen shortage in hospitals during the second wave of the pandemic.

The Delhi government also requested the Railways to operate 'Oxygen Express' trains to save COVID-19 patients gasping for breath in the city's hospitals, Railway Board Chairman Suneet Sharma said. The Delhi government is the latest to have lined up for 'Oxygen Express' services, after Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, he said.

Each tanker of 'Oxygen Express' trains can carry around 16 tonnes of medical oxygen, he said, adding these trains travel at a speed of around 65 kmph.

The Delhi High Court, during the day, heard separate pleas by two private hospitals, which were running out of medical oxygen, seeking immediate supply of oxygen to treat seriously ill COVID-19 patients.

A bench of justices Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli asked hospitals and nursing homes to first approach the nodal officer of the Delhi government to meet the requirement of medical oxygen to treat such patients.

To boost oxygen supply, the Centre also decided to immediately install DRDO-Tata Sons oxygen generation plants at various state-run hospitals like AIIMS, NIC Jhajjar, Safdarjung, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital among others. These will have a capacity to generate 1,000 litres of oxygen per minute.

After the tragic news of the death of 25 patients was announced in the morning, SGRH chairman Dr D S Rana said it is wrong to say the deaths occurred due to oxygen shortage, though according to sources, 'low pressure oxygen' could be the likely cause of the fatalities. More than 500 coronavirus patients, including around 150 on high flow oxygen support, are admitted in the hospital.

In Madhya Pradesh's Jabalpur, five coronavirus patients admitted to the ICU of a private hospital died allegedly after its oxygen supply ran out, prompting the authorities to order a probe.

The incident took place on the intervening night of Thursday and Friday at Galaxy Hospital.

'According to family members, the patients died after the stock of oxygen got over,' said City Superintendent of Police Dipak Mishra.

Meanwhile, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated this morning, India recorded a single day rise of 3,32,730 new cases, taking the tally to 1,62,63,695, while active cases crossed the 24-lakh mark. The death toll increased to 1,86,920 with a record 2,263 new fatalities.

Registering a steady increase, the active cases increased to 24,28,616 comprising 14.93 per cent of the total infections, while the national COVID-19 recovery rate has further dropped to 83.92 per cent.

The number of people who have recuperated from the disease surged to 1,36, 48,159, while the case fatality rate has further dropped to 1.15 per cent, the data stated.

The 2,263 new fatalities include 568 from Maharashtra, 306 from Delhi, 207 from Chhattisgarh, 195 from Uttar Pradesh, 137 from Gujarat, 123 from Karnataka and 106 from Jharkhand.

The health ministry stressed that more than 70 per cent of the deaths occurred due to comorbidities.

With restrictions in place in several states due to the alarming rise in number of cases, many others also imposed curbs.

Police in Maharashtra reintroduced the e-pass system for inter-state and inter-district travel in 'extreme emergency' situations. Fresh restrictions on travel, attendance in offices and weddings came into force on Thursday night. The state, which is facing an unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases, was already under several restrictions since April 14.

Night curfew will be clamped across Andhra Pradesh from Saturday in a bid to curb the virulent spread of coronavirus as the state crossed the one million mark in total cases. PTI TEAM ZMN