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India Hits Lowest Daily COVID-19 Tally In 3 Months

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This spring, India suffered the world's biggest and deadliest COVID-19 outbreak. It collapsed the country's health system. But cases have declined dramatically in recent weeks. Today, India confirmed its lowest daily case count in nearly three months, and it administered its highest ever number of vaccinations today, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMIT SHAH: (Non-English language spoken).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This is a new chapter in the war on corona, India's home minister Amit Shah told supporters in the western state of Gujarat. Today was the first day that COVID-19 shots are free for all adults in India. And government vaccine centers are also accepting walk-ins.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: I tried and tried for months, but I wasn't able to book a shot online, this man told local TV as he lined up at a clinic in the capital, New Delhi. Indians have endured incredible tragedy in recent months. People couldn't get ambulances. Hospitals ran out of oxygen. After strict local lockdowns, coronavirus cases are finally in decline. The man in line says he's desperate to get vaccinated now...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: ...Before the next wave hits. Experts say that could happen this fall. India initially put all of its eggs in one basket with the world's biggest vaccine maker, the Serum Institute. It didn't manufacture enough, and so only about 4% of Indians have been able to get fully vaccinated. The Indian government has scrambled to order more doses from other companies, and those supplies are slowly coming online. Today, more than 8 million Indians got their shots.

GIRIDHARA BABU: And this is fabulous. And I will say, this is the beginning of the end.

FRAYER: Dr. Giridhara Babu is a Bengaluru-based member of the Indian Council of Medical Research, which is basically like India's CDC. He says with even more vaccines in the pipeline, by late July, India should be able to vaccinate up to 10 million people a day.

BABU: They'll be able to give two doses to all the vulnerable. And if it can give one dose to the rest of the population as much as possible, then we are in real good shape.

FRAYER: But Dr. Daksha Shah isn't taking any chances. She's a health official in Mumbai, where, despite declining infections, she's setting up new field hospitals.

DAKSHA SHAH: So we are slowly opening up the economy. Plus, we are doing the vaccination twice. But at the same time, we are keeping a watch on daily positivity and our main occupancies in the hospitals. So we are preparing for the third wave also, in case that happens.

FRAYER: India's second COVID wave was spread in part by attendees at a huge religious gathering on the banks of the Ganges River. And again this past weekend, thousands of faithful gathered there...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING, CHIMES)

FRAYER: ...To take a ritual dip in the river they consider most holy. One devotee told local TV...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: She knows it's risky. But she's also taking precautions - using a mask and hand sanitizer and hoping for the best.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.