Two dead and over 100 Covid cases among US diplomatic staff in India

Two dead and more than 100 infected after mass coronavirus outbreak among US diplomatic staff in India

  • Outbreak among locally-employed staff comes amid spiralling Covid infections
  • For five consecutive days, India reported record new cases of over 350,000
  • CNN reports that two US diplomatic staff have died, with 100 more infected
  • The US operates five consulates in Indian cities and has an embassy in New Delhi
  • It is currently unclear where the Covid outbreak and deaths have occurred
  • US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said he has lost relatives to virus in India
  • Biden administration is set to send aid to the country to help fight second wave 

Two people have died and more than 100 have tested positive for coronavirus in a major coronavirus outbreak among US diplomatic staff in India, it has been reported.

The outbreak among the locally employed staff comes as the country continues to struggle with one of the largest outbreaks of Covid-19 the world has seen since the start of the pandemic. 

India has broken global records with over 300,000 new infections being reported daily, hospitals have run out of beds, oxygen and ventilators, and thousands have died as the devastating second wave shows no sign of slowing.

Citing two sources familiar with the situation, CNN reported there has been a major outbreak of the virus among US diplomatic staff in the country leading the deaths of two, but did not say where in the country the deaths and cases occurred.

The US operates five consulates in different cities and has an embassy in India’s capital of New Delhi, which has been one of the country’s worst afflicted regions.

News of the outbreak came as the US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy spoke of how he has lost family members in India to the coronavirus.

‘I happen to also have a lot of family in India, and staying in touch with them and also understanding from their perspective how bad it is has been really concerning,’ Murthy said during a call on Monday.

‘Several of my family members in India have died as a result of Covid-19 and many more have actually gotten sick, so this is serious for me personally.’ 

Two people have died and more than 100 have tested positive for coronavirus in a major coronavirus outbreak among US diplomatic staff in India, it has been reported. Pictured: The American Embassy in New Delhi, India, shown in 2014 [file photo]

Speaking during a Health and Human Services Department Community Corps call, the Surgeon General said countries doing well with their vaccination programs – such as the US – should be concerned about the Covid spread in other countries too.

‘We know that this is a global pandemic, which means that the solution is not just to get our population vaccinated, but it’s to make sure that we are reducing rates of infection globally,’ he said.

‘When cases are running unchecked, and growing at high rates in other countries that means is a greater chance of variants to develop. No country will be ultimately safe if we have ongoing uncontrolled spread of virus in other parts of the world.’

US personnel, their family members and staff employed locally in India only began to receive their coronavirus vaccines within the past two weeks, according to CNN’s sources.

Even as India’s second wave – that begun last month – began to take hold and staff were yet to be vaccinated, there were two high-level trips by Biden administration officials to the country within the past six weeks.

The sources told the network that there was frustration among the staff because they felt they were left in the dark over when the US diplomatic mission would receive Covid vaccines.

Pictured: U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in December 2020. Murthy as spoken of how the Covid crisis in India has affected him personally, saying he has family who have died

They felt they were not being prioritised – despite the alarming rise in cases – when many diplomatic staff in Europe and within the US had already received their shots.

The State Department had worked to get the vaccines to locations where personnel live on campus, one source told CNN, including Kabul and Baghdad. This may have contributed to the diplomatic mission in India being late in the vaccine queue. 

However, one source told the network that the  vaccines ‘came too late for the two people who died … it’s horrible.’

In February, frustrations from diplomats overseas over the speed at which they received the vaccine was acknowledged by Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

Speaking earlier this month, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that as of April 18, the ‘department (had) completed deployment of vaccines to all of our posts abroad,’ according to CNN.

Much of the diplomatic’s mission in India is now working from home, the sources reportedly said, and that last week the Embassy in the Indian capital moved to have even fewer staff working in-person.

In this aerial picture taken on April 26, 2021, burning pyres of victims who lost their lives due to the Covid-19 coronavirus are seen at a cremation ground in New Delhi

 

 

In a statement given to CNN, a State Department spokesman said: ‘Department has no higher priority than the safety and security of its employees.

‘We are closely monitoring the situation and we will take all necessary measures to safeguard the health and well-being of our employees, including offering vaccines to employees,’ they said.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that ‘privacy considerations limit what we can say’ and would not confirm the outbreak to the network.

Speaking during a State Department press briefing on Monday, April 26, Price said: ‘India is enduring a deeply concerning outbreak and the entire country has been affected.

‘We obviously do have a large diplomatic presence within India. It is tantamount to the deep engagement and partnership we have with India. But I’m not in a position to speak to any cases within our staff or embassy community.’

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in India on March 19 and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry arrived on April 6, meaning both were there before the State Department had given vaccines to staff.

A patient wearing an oxygen mask is wheeled inside a COVID-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease in Ahmedabad, India, April 26

CNN’s sources said there was some anxiety around the officials’ visit because at the time of their arrival, India was already experiencing surging cases.

Such high level visits involve in-person meetings with Indian officials ahead of and during the visit. While the sources said there were anecdotal reports of positive cases following the visit, it is unclear if they were directly linked.

There are now concerns over the medical treatment US diplomatic staff will be able to receive – for both Covid and non-Covid issues – as the healthcare infrastructure has been left if tatters by the second wave of coronavirus.

Hospitals are filled to capacity, and international flights back to the US could be suspended over fears of a new ‘double mutant’ variant.

On Monday, the US Consulate in Chennai tweeted that, ‘Considering current COVID-19 conditions, all routine services at @USAndChennai are cancelled from April 26 through May 15th, including all routine non-immigrant visa interview appointments, interview waiver appointments, and routine American Citizen Services appointments.’ 

The Embassy in New Delhi said on Friday that ‘in-person visa appointments and interview-waiver appointments are cancelled from April 26 to May 9 in light of current pandemic conditions.’ The consulate in Mumbai said it would ‘provide only essential consular services until further notice,’ on April 9.

India’s health ministry reported another 2,771 deaths in the past 24 hours, with roughly 115 Indians succumbing to the disease every hour. The latest fatalities pushed India’s fatalities to 197,894, behind the U.S., Brazil and Mexico. Experts say even these figures are probably an undercount. 

On Monday, officials announced that the US will send doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, dispatch a strike team and offer other supplies to India, as President Joe Biden pledged to ‘be there’ for that nation in its hour of need.

The United States will send doses of the AstraZeneca COVID1- vaccine, dispatch a strike team and offer other supplies to India, officials announced Monday, as President Joe Biden pledged to ‘be there’ for that nation in its hour of need

‘We’re prepared to provide therapeutic, personal protective equipment, and tests,’ a senior administration official said on a briefing call with reporters. 

‘In the United States we’ve identified US commercial suppliers of remdesivir that are immediately available to help relieve the suffering of COVID-19 patients in India, and we’ve identified rapid diagnostic testing supplies as well as personal protective equipment that will be available to be transferred to India immediately.’

The US also announced its intention to send supplies and AstraZenec, which is not authorized in the country and will likely not be required to vaccinate Americans given the US has enough doses of the other options to inoculate its citizens.

‘We will be providing raw materials for the production of the AstraZeneca,’ the official said on the call. 

Critics have accused Washington of ‘hoarding’ the British-developed vaccine.

‘U.S. to release 60 million Astra Zeneca doses to other countries as they become available,’ tweeted Andy Slavitt, senior advisor to the White House on Covid response.

An administration official told reporters the first 10 million doses could be available ‘in the coming weeks’ after they pass a quality inspection by the Food and Drug Administration.

‘Further, there’s an estimated additional 50 million doses that are in various stages of production, and these could be completed in stages across May and June,’ she added.

India will receive some doses, officials said after Biden held a telephone call with his counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pledging US support to fight the surge.

‘Today, I spoke with Prime Minister @narendramodi and pledged America’s full support to provide emergency assistance and resources in the fight against COVID-19. India was there for us, and we will be there for them,’ Biden tweeted.    

The vaccine announcement greatly expands a US action from last month to loan four million AstraZeneca doses to Mexico and Canada.

It also comes as US domestic supply appears increasingly assured, making it unlikely AstraZeneca will be required.

Pfizer and Moderna say they are on track to deliver 600 million doses between them by the end of July. Both are two-dose regimens.

The country has also resumed vaccinations with the Johnson & Johnson single shot, the third authorized injection, after a brief pause over suspected links to a rare form of clotting.

More than 53 percent of adults in the United States have so far received at least one dose of vaccine, according to official data, and domestic demand has begun to taper off as many people who wished to get vaccinated have already done so.

The rate of new daily Covid cases in the United States is also in decline, dipping below a seven-day average of 60,000 for the first time in a month. 

In this aerial picture taken on April 26, burning pyres of victims who lost their lives due to the Covid-19 coronavirus are seen at a cremation ground in New Delhi

A man performs the last rites of his relative as pyres of Covid-19 deceased people burn at a crematorium in New Delhi

People carry oxygen cylinders after refilling them in a factory amid a shortage of medical supplies due to the surging second wave

Fury as Twitter removes 50 tweets critical of India’s pandemic response 

Twitter has been criticised for the removal of dozens of tweets seen to be critical of the Indian government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic is putting people’s health at risk and quashing dissent.

Lawmakers and human rights activists blasted the social media company on Monday after it withheld some tweets after a legal request by the Indian government,

These included tweets from a lawmaker, a minister in the state of West Bengal, and a filmmaker.

‘Suppression of information and criticism of government is not only dangerous for India but it is putting people around the world at risk,’ said Mirza Saaib Beg, a lawyer whose tweets were among those withheld.

‘Freedom of inquiry is an intrinsic part of freedom of speech and expression. These restrictions are further reflective of the weakening of all institutional spaces in India,’ said Beg, who is studying at Britain’s University of Oxford.

India’s ministry for information technology did not respond to a request for comment.

The country’s new coronavirus infections hit a record peak for a fifth day on Monday, rising to about 353,000 cases.

There is mounting criticism that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and state authorities let their guard down earlier this year, allowing big religious and political gatherings to take place when cases fell to below 10,000 a day.

‘Questioning the government of India’s decision to allow mass gatherings … where people from all across the country gathered and violated COVID safety protocols … cannot be called to be violating any laws of the country,’ said Pawan Khera, a spokesman for the opposition Congress party, whose tweets were also withheld.

The law cited in the government’s Twitter request is the Information Technology Act, 2000, which allows authorities to order blocking of public access to information to protect ‘sovereignty and integrity of India’ and maintain public order.

Requests from the government are reviewed under Twitter’s rules and the local law, a spokeswoman for Twitter told Reuters.

There is a ‘lack of transparency’ in the government’s order, said the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights group in Delhi.

‘What is clear is there are more directions being issued across social media platforms in India,’ it said in a statement.

Twitter has about 17.5 million users in India.

A doctor at the heart of India’s coronavirus outbreak warned that the next two weeks ‘are going to be hell’.

Dr Shaarang Sachdev, from the Aakash Healthcare Super Speciality Hospital in the hard-hit capital of Delhi, said the country is experiencing its worst point of the pandemic so far and described the current situation as ‘critical’.

For five consecutive days until Monday, India was reporting global record one-day Covid cases figures that topped out above 350,000 cases. Tuesday’s figure is 323,144, though experts warn that is likely the result of less testing at the weekend and not a sign that the wave of infections is slowing.

Indian health authorities also reported another 2,771 deaths from the virus today – slightly lower than Monday’s count but again amid warnings that many deaths are going uncounted.

Other nations like Germany, Israel, France and Pakistan have also promised medical aid to India. The countries have said they will supply oxygen, diagnostic tests, treatments, ventilators and protective gear to help India at the time of crisis which World Health Organization’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday called ‘beyond heartbreaking.’

The surge, spurred by insidious new variants of coronavirus, has undermined the Indian government’s premature claims of victory over the pandemic. 

The country of nearly 1.4 billion people is facing a chronic shortage of space on its intensive care wards. Hospitals are experiencing oxygen shortages and many people are being forced to turn to makeshift facilities for mass burials and cremations as the country’s funeral services have become overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, in a bid to tackle the shortage of beds, Indian authorities are turning to train carriages, which have been converted into isolation wards. India has also started airlifting oxygen tankers to states in need. Special trains with oxygen supplies are also running in the country.

France was sending breathing machines, ICU gear and eight oxygen generators in a shipment expected to be sent later this week. Each generator can equip a hospital of 250 beds for several years, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said.

France will also send breathing machines, pumps and containers of liquid medical oxygen aimed at helping up to 10,000 patients per day, according to the French Foreign Ministry. That first oxygen shipment is expected to arrive from Europe to India next week.

The White House was moving to share raw materials for the production of the AstraZeneca vaccine with India by diverting some U.S. orders to the vaccine manufacturer Serum Institute of India.

White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients told The Associated Press that the Biden administration was working to satisfy other ‘key requests’ from the Indian government, namely for personal protective equipment, tests, therapeutics and supplies of oxygen and respiratory assistance devices.

Epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were also expected to soon travel to India to assist with its virus response.  

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