IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

As India's Covid crisis grows, trains carrying emergency oxygen race to save patients

“Watching someone gasping and not being able to deliver oxygen is something that will stay with every health care worker for the rest of their lives.”

Oxygen supplies are being rushed by train to New Delhi amid shortages across hospitals in the nation's capital, as India's Covid-19 crisis deepens.

The country confirmed a record 3,780 deaths Wednesday, a day after it became only the second country after the United States to pass 20 million total infections.

Piyush Goyal, the minister for railways, called the trains "Oxygen Express" in a tweet and said they would “provide a continued supply of oxygen for Covid-19 patients in the capital.”

He also tweeted Wednesday that the Indian railways have deployed several “isolation coaches with a capacity of 300 beds” in Ahmedabad, a city in the state of Gujarat that is facing upward of 13,000 daily cases. At least three trains arrived in New Delhi on Wednesday carrying oxygen, according to NDTV news.

The trains, Goyal said, are staffed with medical professionals and equipped with medical facilities and equipment, as many hospitals in India have gone past capacity. The shortages have seen hospitals turn away patients.

The gap between the demand and supply of staff and medical supplies is large. And for health care workers on the front line, the toll is heavy.

Beds are seen inside a Gurudwara converted into a Covid-19 care facility in New Delhi, India, on Wednesday.Adnan Abidi / Reuters

“We were expecting a second wave and we thought we could manage it like we did the first wave. This grand surge was not foreseen and we were not adequately prepared to solve it,” said Dr. Sai Aditya Nayudu, a pulmonologist in the city of Rajkot, Gujarat.

“Now we are taking steps to solve the problem, but there is a lot to be done.”

India's Health Ministry announced an additional 382,315 new cases Wednesday, and its national death toll has now passed 220,000. However, experts worry the real numbers may be five to 10 times higher in the country with a population of 1.35 billion.

Experts say that this devastating second wave was a culmination of superspreader events over the past few months, including religious congregations and election rallies. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have been criticized as complacent for not putting a stop to mass gatherings and being unprepared for a second wave.

Dr. Dipshikha Ghosh, a critical care resident in Kolkata in the state of West Bengal, said that the second wave had pushed doctors to the limit. “The hospital I work in has its own oxygen plant. Even then, one day, very recently, our oxygen almost ran out. Almost. Till the reserves kicked in, we almost lost a patient.”

“Watching someone gasping and not being able to deliver oxygen is something that will stay with every health care worker for the rest of their lives,” she added.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

Calls for a nationwide lockdown have been echoed domestically and internationally, with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., telling The Indian Express Newspaper that a nationwide lockdown, alongside mass vaccinations and the construction of makeshift hospitals would be necessary measures in curbing the spread of the virus.

The government has been hesitant in imposing a national lockdown in India because of the economic consequences Some states have instead chosen to implement their own social curbs.

Workers prepare to load refilled oxygen cylinders into a vehicle to supply hospitals treating Covid-19 coronavirus patients in Bangalore on Wednesday.Manjunath Kiran / AFP - Getty Images

Dr. Nigil Haroon, a scientist and clinical immunologist from the University of Toronto, said that there is no other solution except a lockdown. “The only way to keep the cases from going up is to break the chain,” he said.

“Granted the impact maybe felt only two weeks from now, but we do not want to be thinking of a lockdown two weeks from now as the daily new cases do not seem to be peaking.”

Despite having transported vaccines to numerous countries around the world, India has faced shortages domestically. At least three states, including Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, India's largest city, have had to shut down some vaccination centers.

“There is no doubt that India has to increase vaccination,” Haroon added. However, vaccine drives will have to be planned well so that they don’t cause the virus to spread further in communities with already high infection rates.