Nepal’s health ministry reported an all-time daily record of more than 10,200 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, as the coronavirus surged back after declining cases in recent months.
The tally surpasses the previous record of more than 9,300 daily cases in May 2021, when the delta variant tore through South Asia.
The capital, Kathmandu, and the surrounding valley are the current coronavirus hotspot, with health officials in the region reporting more than half of the total current daily cases.
Virologists believe the true number of infections could be much higher than the reported figure as many people may remain without adequate access to healthcare, adding that the omicron variant is likely to blame for the high number of infections. infections.
By early January, Nepal had reported that at least 22% of infections were due to the omicron variant.
Sher Bahadur Pun, a clinical researcher at Sukraraj Tropical Hospital in Kathmandu, told DW that figure could be much higher at present, adding that it is difficult to distinguish which variant caused the infection, as labs are not equipped and do not determine which variant was responsible on a case-by-case basis.
However, he added that it was clear that the new variant was spreading throughout the community.
Omicron arrives from India
The latest wave of infections began in the second week of January, after the number of new infections began to rise exponentially, after the daily average hovered in the hundreds over the fall.
Krishna Prasad Poudel, Nepal’s chief epidemiologist, told local media that the current wave of infections was triggered by rising cases in neighboring India and spread rapidly via border towns, to finally reach Kathmandu.
“The Omicron variant has spread to the community level,” he said, as quoted by himal magazine. “In border areas, almost all of the positive cases were due to omicron.”
Nepal and India share an open and porous border 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) long, and thousands of people cross the border every day without health checks. In India, daily infection rates recently topped 270,000.
Baburam Marasini, former director of epidemiology and disease control, told DW that the political conventions held in December also contributed to the spread of the delta and omicron variants.
Nepali health workers brace for the worst
Like elsewhere in the world, omicron is straining healthcare services as doctors, nurses and other workers contract the virus and miss work.
More than 600 healthcare workers from the five largest public hospitals in Kathmandu have been infected in recent weeks.
Clinician Pun warned that it may affect the service of these hospitals amid a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals in the capital.
Local media also reported that there was a shortage of basic drugs like paracetamol used to treat fever in pharmacies in Kathmandu.
Marasini warned that the new omicron wave could be just as fatal and overwhelm the country’s healthcare system as the previous delta variant wave in May 2021.
At the height of the outbreak, Nepal was recording 9,000 daily cases and more than 200 deaths, and the country’s dilapidated health system was overwhelmed.
Hundreds of patients have died due to lack of immediate medical intervention, including lack of oxygen, hospital beds and ventilators.
Nepal issues vaccine mandate
To combat the outbreak, the Nepalese government has issued a vaccination mandate, stipulating that from January 21, people must prove their vaccination status to gain access to public events, restaurants, hotels or on board planes.
Authorities also closed places like cinemas, dance bars, religious sites, public parks and gymnasiums until the end of January. No more than 25 people at a time are allowed to gather in stores that remain open.
The government has faced much criticism over its handling of the pandemic, mainly due to slow vaccination rates and a lack of proper health screening at border entry points.
As of January 18, only 40% of Nepal’s 30 million people had been fully vaccinated, while about 53% had received at least one shot of the vaccine, according to the health ministry.
Marasini questioned the logic of the vaccination card rule, as the majority of the population has yet to be fully vaccinated.
“If we had vaccinated about two-thirds of the target populations, we could have imposed such a vaccination mandate,” he said. “Otherwise, these instructions will not be followed.”
Vaccine doses ‘disappear’
Nepal had started inoculating its population as early as January 2021, but its vaccination campaign was interrupted because there were not enough vaccines, or even syringes, to administer the doses.
Nepal’s health secretary, Roshan Pokhrel, told DW that although the initial vaccination campaign was hampered by lack of supply, that was no longer the case.
However, Pokhrel told a parliamentary panel on Tuesday that about 2.5 million doses of vaccine from government stocks could not be counted, and hinted that the doses could have been taken illegally.
Pokhrel told DW that the misuse of vaccines by those who have access to doses has become a problem. The government has yet to investigate the misuse of vaccines, most of which have been purchased by the state or donated through international vaccination campaigns.
And while nearly half the country has yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine, others with access to the doses have already taken boosters.
The government has started providing reminders to frontline workers, including healthcare professionals, cleaners and government officials. However, health experts say these doses should be prioritized for those who have not yet been vaccinated.
Edited by: Wesley Rahn