New Delhi (AP): Healthcare and front-line workers along with people above age 60 with health problems lined up Monday at vaccination centers across India to receive a third dose as infections linked to the omicron variant surge.

The doses, which India is calling a “precautionary” shot instead of a booster, were given as new confirmed coronavirus infections rocketed to over 179,000 on Monday, nearly an eightfold increase in a week. Hospitalizations, while still relatively low, are also beginning to rise in large, crowded cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata.

Dr. Ravindra Kumar Dewan, who heads the National Institute of Tuberculosis and Respiratory Diseases in New Delhi, queued up for his shot. He said boosters are a “significant step” because there are still many unknowns about the omicron variant.

“Yesterday, the mortality … has increased in Delhi. So, whether our health care system will get overwhelmed or not is yet to be seen,” he said.

India is better prepared now than it was last year when the delta variant overwhelmed hospitals. When cases spiked in March last year, not even 1% of its population of nearly 1.4 billion was fully vaccinated. India’s creaky medical infrastructure meant millions likely died.

Since then, the government has bolstered healthcare, built oxygen plants and added beds to hospitals. About 47% of the population is now fully vaccinated and many have antibodies from previous infections. This may provide “hybrid immunity” — a combination of immunity from previous infections and vaccines — comparable to boosters, said Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, an Indian epidemiologist.

Although the omicron variant seems to cause less severe illness than the delta variant, India’s massive population, crowded cities, and understaffed hospitals mean that health systems may still become strained. Elections may further spread the more infectious variant, allowing it to infect vulnerable people that previous variants didn’t reach. But the biggest fear is that hospitals will be overwhelmed because of sick medical personnel, said Dr. Vineeta Bal, an immunologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in the city of Pune.

By Aniruddha Ghosal