NEW DELHI/MUMBAI: As a fresh wave of COVID-19 forced a sense of urgency in India's vaccination campaign, the Centre allowed administering of shots at workplaces with about 100 eligible beneficiaries from April 11 and asserted that there was no vaccine shortage after Maharashtra and some other non-BJP ruled states complained about it.
While the chorus for relaxing age criteria for vaccination grew louder, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan alleged that the states were trying to cover their "failures" and spread panic among the people by demanding vaccination for all without first inoculating enough of the eligible beneficiaries.
People above the age of 45 are currently eligible for vaccination.
Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said that many inoculation centres are being shut due to the shortage of vaccines in the state, the worst affected by the coronavirus outbreak in the country, and they have 14 lakh doses which would last just three days.
"We need 40 lakh vaccine doses every week. We can then administer six lakh doses every day in a week.
The doses we are getting are not enough," he said, adding the Centre should ensure that those in the 20-40 age group are vaccinated on priority.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi also batted for the COVID-19 vaccine for all, saying every Indian "deserves the chance to a safe life".
Similar demands for relaxing the age restriction have been made by Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.
The Odisha government said it has vaccines for another three days and that it had written to the central government on Tuesday urging it to provide 15 to 20 lakh doses of the 'Covishield' vaccine to continue the inoculation drive smoothly.
"With the available stock in the state and the current trend of vaccination coverage by the districts, we can conduct vaccination sessions in the state for another three days only," Health and Family Welfare Department's Additional Chief Secretary PK Mohapatra said in a letter to the Union health ministry.
Vardhan said the allegations of vaccine shortage are utterly baseless and the states, including Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, need to improve the implementation of their testing and containment strategies and vaccination drive.
He said the "lackadaisical" attitude of the Maharashtra government has "singularly bogged down" the entire country's efforts to fight the virus.
The single-day rise in coronavirus cases breached the one-lakh mark for the second time in three days, taking the tally to 1,28,01,785 till Wednesday morning, while the death toll increased to 1,66,177 with 630 fatalities.
Maharashtra on Wednesday recorded the highest daily count of 59,907 cases and 322 deaths.
"The inability of the Maharashtra government to act responsibly is beyond comprehension. To spread panic among the people is to compound the folly further. Vaccine supplies are being monitored on a real-time basis, and state governments are being apprised regularly about it.
Allegations of vaccine shortage are utterly baseless," Vardhan said.
Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan in a letter to the chief secretaries said COVID-19 vaccination sessions may be organised at workplaces, both public and private, which are having about 100 eligible and willing beneficiaries by tagging these workplaces with an existing COVID vaccination centre to increase the access of vaccine.
"Such workplace vaccination centres may be launched across states/Union territories from April 11, 2021," he said.
The Union Health Ministry said India has surpassed the US to become the fastest COVID-19 vaccinating country in the world with an average daily rate of 30,93,861 vaccine doses.
Registering a steady increase for the 28th day in row, the active cases have increased to 8,43,473 comprising 6.59 percent of the total infections, while the recovery rate has further dropped to 92.11 percent the Union Health Ministry data updated on Wednesday.
The active caseload was at its lowest at 1, 35,926 on February 12 comprising 1.25 percent of the total infections.
The Centre has been urging the states to speed up vaccination and ensure strict compliance of COVID-appropriate behaviour and restrictions to check the alarming surge.
Experts have opined that these steps are key to staving off the infection chain.
Eight states including Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have shown a rise in the COVID daily new cases accounting for 80.70 percent of the new cases reported in a day.
India's total active caseload, as on Wednesday morning, increased to 8,43,473 and now comprises 6.59 percent of the country's total cases.
Fifty high-level central teams have been rushed to Maharashtra, Punjab and Chhattisgarh to assist the states in COVID control and management measures.
These teams will be stationed in the states for 3-5 days.
Experts say there could be various factors at play -- immune escape variants that are not detected by antibodies, laxity due to less fear of COVID-19 infection and a largely susceptible population.
"Most importantly, the pace of vaccination is not as fast as one would expect India to be in.
The pace at which the vulnerable have to be covered is not satisfactory," Dr Giridhara R Babu, Professor and Head, Lifecourse Epidemiology, Public Health Foundation of India, said States have been forced to reimpose restrictions after the alarming rise in cases, though many have ruled out a complete lockdown.
The Chhattisgarh government announced a lockdown in capital Raipur with effect from April 9 to 19, while the Madhya Pradesh government has imposed night curfew and lockdown on Sunday in urban areas from Thursday, besides suspending bus operations with Chhattisgarh till April 15.
Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh announced the extension of night curfew to the entire state and a ban on political gatherings till April 30.
As part of the fresh curbs, the number of people who can attend funerals and weddings has been reduced to 50 people indoors and 100 for outdoors.
Singh also made it clear that no other social, cultural or sports gatherings and related functions will be allowed till April 30.
The Maharashtra government had on Sunday announced a weekend lockdown and night curfew during the weekdays from Monday to April 30, in addition to a slew of other restrictions like the closure of private offices, theatres and salons.
Besides, prohibitory orders will be in force during the daytime on weekdays.
Odisha has started imposing night curfew from 10 pm to 5 am in Sundargarh, Bargarh, Jharsuguda, Sambalpur, Balangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Malkangiri, Koraput and Nabarangpur districts to contain the spread of the disease.
The district administration in Puri, where the iconic Shree Jagannath Temple attracts lakhs of visitors, has made it mandatory for travellers from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Punjab and Kerala to the pilgrim town to produce RT-PCR negative reports at the railway station and bus terminus, a district official said.
Delhi also has imposed a night curfew.
The national capital on Wednesday recorded 5,506 fresh COVID-19 cases, the sharpest daily spike this year, that pushed the infection tally to 6,90,568 while 20 more people succumbed to the disease, taking the death toll to 11,133, according to the city's health department.
With coronavirus infections and fatalities hitting 7.7 percent and 2 percent respectively last week in Punjab, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh set a vaccination target of two lakh shots per day from the current 90, 000.
"Vaccination is the only way to prevent the spread," he said.
Singh said he would again urge the Union government for relaxation in the age criteria for vaccinating people under the age of 45 years in areas showing a weekly doubling of the positivity rate.
Delhi Health Minister Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain also renewed his government's demand that vaccination should be made open to all adults, except those who are not medically compliant.
Vardhan, however, said when states ask to open up vaccine supplies to everyone over 18, "we must presume that they have done saturation coverage of healthcare workers, frontline workers and senior citizens".
"But the facts are altogether different," he said while pointing out that Maharashtra has vaccinated just only 86 percent of health workers with the first dose, while the equivalent numbers for Delhi and Punjab are 72 per cent and 64 percent.
On the other hand, 10 Indian states/UTs have done more than 90 percent, he added.
The minister further said Maharashtra has vaccinated just 41 percent of healthcare workers with the second dose, while the same for Delhi and Punjab are 41 percent and 27 percent, though there are 12 Indian states/UTs that have done more than 60 percent.
Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court on Wednesday sought response of the Union government on a petition requesting that door-to-door vaccination facility be made available for the citizens above 75 years and also for those people who cannot visit inoculation centres because they are either bed-ridden or wheelchair-bound.
Hearing a public interest litigation (PIL), a division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G S Kulkarni also asked the Union government if the procedure laid down for registration for vaccination can be made more user friendly.