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India sets Covid infection record for third straight day

India reported 346,786 new cases of Covid-19 on Saturday -- the third day in a row the country has set a world record for infections during the coronavirus pandemic, according to government and scientific tallies. The related death toll for the previous 24 hours hit 2,624 -- also a daily record for India -- for 189,544 total fatalities.

The sky-rocketing Covid-19 infections are devastating India's communities and hospitals. Everything is in short supply -- intensive care unit beds, medicine, oxygen and ventilators. Bodies are piling up in morgues and crematoriums.

Twenty critically ill patients died at a Delhi hospital Friday night after its supply of oxygen was delayed by seven hours, according to Dr. DK Baluja, medical director at the Jaipur Golden Hospital.

"That happened last night. Everything we had was exhausted. The oxygen was not supplied on time. It was supposed to come in at 5 p.m. but it came around midnight. People who were critically ill needed oxygen," said Baluja.

The hospital is currently scrambling to arrange more oxygen but has not received a fresh supply all Saturday morning. "We have only 15-20 minutes of oxygen left now. It may take hours to get another tanker," Baluja told CNN.

Delhi hospitals have been facing a severe oxygen shortage as the number of Covid-19 cases have soared in the national capital in the past two weeks.

On Saturday morning, Moolchand hospital tweeted out an SOS to the Delhi government pleading for oxygen. "Urgent sos help. We have less than 2 hours of oxygen supply @Moolchand_Hosp. We are desperate [...] Have over 135 COVID pts with many on life support," read the tweet.

Delhi recorded 24,331 new cases Friday, including 348 deaths, according to the Covid-19 health bulletin issued by the Delhi government.

Countrywide, India has now recorded more than 16.6 million cases since the start of the pandemic, a CNN tally of figures from the Indian Ministry of Health reveals.

Saturday's tally of new infections represents the highest number of cases recorded in a single day anywhere in the world. Before India's three-day run of record infections, the global highest in a day was the 300,310 cases recorded in the US on January 2, according to a CNN tally of figures from John Hopkins University.

India's population is roughly four times that of the US, and its daily cases still fall behind the US when adjusted for population size (in cases per million people).

"We're going through pretty much the worst possible phase of the pandemic here," Chandrika Bahadur, chair of the Lancet Commission on Covid-19 India Taskforce, said on Wednesday.

Hospital fire kills 15 patients

Compounding the tragedy in India, a fire in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Virar, a city north of Mumbai, early Friday killed at least 15 coronavirus patients, a senior local administration official told CNN.

"Suddenly sparks fell from the AC (air conditioner) and within two minutes it was on fire," Dr. Dilip Shah, from Vijay Vallabh Covid care hospital, told reporters Friday.

The fire came two days after 24 coronavirus patients died waiting for oxygen at Zakir Hussain Hospital in Nashik district of Maharashtra after an accidental oxygen leak, according to Suraj Mandhare, a senior Nashik District official.

State ministers and local authorities, including those in hard-hit Maharashtra, have been warning about the second wave and preparing action since February. By contrast, there appears to have been a vacuum of leadership within the central government, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi staying largely silent on the situation until recent weeks.

It wasn't until Tuesday that Modi finally emphasized the urgency of the situation and laid out new measures in a late night address to the nation. "The country is again fighting a very big battle against Covid-19," he said. "A few weeks ago, the conditions had stabilized -- and then came the second wave."

But by then, India's outbreak was already the world's biggest in terms of absolute daily numbers. Nearly 28% of all new cases worldwide in the past week have come from India, according to the World Health Organization.

Experts and health care workers say the public let its guard down with a false sense of security after the first wave subsided, which is why the second wave advanced so rapidly -- but this complacency was exacerbated by government officials like Modi and Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, who loudly celebrated the country's apparent recovery.

Leaders did little to discourage public gatherings, allowing a massive weeks-long Hindu pilgrimage to proceed with millions of attendees traveling across numerous states.

Top adviser defends government response

K. VijayRaghavan, principal scientific adviser for the Indian government, told CNN on Friday that no one foresaw "the extent of the surge" in cases, to which "some anticipated and some unanticipated" factors had contributed.

He defended the government's handling of the crisis, saying "the surge is of such a level that no matter how much health care capacity is ramped up or was ramped after the first wave, this is not yet sufficient."

VijayRaghavan, who is also a co-chair of India's Covid-19 vaccine task force, admitted that the provision of personal protective equipment, ventilators, hospital setups and vaccine production needed to be "scaled up enormously."

Arguing that local containment, rather than a national lockdown, was the way to deal with the situation, he said steps must be taken to "prevent the interactions of those regions where there are high surges with other locations."

VijayRaghavan said the lack of oxygen availability had had "a horrendously large impact on some cities" but said the government was increasing manufacturing, importation and distribution of oxygen and hoped to start seeing results soon.

He added that India would resume supplying vaccine doses to the rest of the world as the situation stabilizes.

"India is committed, even in this crisis, of amplifying vaccine development. We have a huge challenge in ramping it up here, which we are doing -- and as our crisis diminishes, we will open up again for others, too," he said.

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