The nearly week-long spell of worsened air quality and a fresh surge in coronavirus cases in the national capital have proved "doubly detrimental" to people suffering from respiratory ailments, as their complications have increased and many of them have also contracted COVID-19 infection, experts said on Wednesday.
Many doctors and medical experts had earlier cautioned that rising air pollution coupled with the ongoing pandemic, could make matters worse for people with lung or breathing-related complications.
Describing it as a "double whammy" for those with respiratory problems, Suranjit Chatterjee, a senior consultant at Apollo Hospitals, told PTI that "The air quality in the last six days being particularly terrible, we are seeing a jump in cases of respiratory illnesses and with greater severity than say, the scenario last November when also the pollution level was very high. But, this unpredictable virus is what is causing all the more complications."
Smog enveloped Delhi on Tuesday as the city's air quality hit "emergency" levels, while it also recorded 7830 fresh COVID-19 cases, the highest single-day spike here till date, taking the infection tally in the national capital to over 4.5 lakh.
Delhi recorded a 24-hour average air quality index (AQI) of 476, which falls in the "severe" category. The neighbouring cities of Faridabad (448), Ghaziabad (444), Noida (455), Greater Noida (436) and Gurgaon (427), which fall in the National Capital Region (NCR), also recorded "severe" air quality.
It was the sixth "severe" air day on the trot in Delhi on Tuesday. The city had witnessed seven "severe" air days in November last year.
The levels of PM2.5 -- which is about three per cent the diameter of a human hair and can lead to premature deaths from heart and lung diseases -- were 494 g/m3 at 5 pm, more than eight times the safe limit of 60 g/m3.
The twin factors of rising pollution level and a massive surge in COVID-19 cases in the last several days have also led to increased burden on hospitals with vacancy of beds shrinking fast and rise in footfall of patients in the OPD too, doctors said.
Besides, ICU beds with ventilators at most top private hospitals and major Centre-run facilities are also getting filled up with spiralling cases and a large number of deaths in the last few days.
On Tuesday, 83 COVID-19 fatalities were recorded, the highest since June 16. On the preceding three days, the daily death count was over 70.
"Definitely, with rising air pollution in Delhi and worsening air quality index, there has been an increase in the number and severity of cases of COVID-19 as well COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and asthma patients. This is because air pollution causes inflammation of the nose, airways, and lungs which increase our susceptibility of catching respiratory infections such as the coronavirus," said Richa Sareen, Consultant, Pulmonogy, and Critical Care Medicine, Fortis Hospital Vasant Kunj.
The studies were done in the US and another study suggest that there is a "direct link" between an increase in COVID-19 cases or mortality from it and rising air pollution, she said.
The senior doctor said the worsening air quality and surge in cases of coronavirus are proving doubly detrimental to patients who have respiratory illnesses.
Chatterjee said, "Many of these patients coming up with complaints of severe complications, like breathlessness, high fever are also ending up COVID-positive".
"Even those I did not suspect to have contracted the infection, were diagnosed with coronavirus infection after a test. Since the virus is behaving in an unpredictable way, it is making things even more difficult for patients with respiratory illnesses," he added.
Chatterjee said, the ICU beds with ventilators are getting swamped and "on a case basis, we are rotating patients to HDUs (high dependency units) so that very severe patient can be accommodated in ICUs".
The online Corona dashboard of the Delhi government showed that at 1:20 PM, out of 1270 ICU beds with a ventilator facility, only 162 were vacant.
At the Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital (RGSSH) and LNJP Hospitals, both dedicated COVID-19 facilities under the Delhi government and each having 200 ICU beds with ventilator facility, only 44 and 6 beds respectively, were vacant at 1:20 PM.
Air pollution may increase the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus making people more vulnerable to the disease and aggravating the COVID-19 situation, experts had recently said, while warning that those who have had the infection in the past may also have to face new challenges.
Sandeep Nayar, senior director and head, Centre for Chest & Respiratory Diseases, BLK Hospital, said, due to the increase in pollution, the number, as well as severity of respiratory problems, has "increased suddenly in the last few days".
"We are already fighting a tough battle with COVID-19. Pollution per se may not increase COVID infection directly but may worsen their symptoms. It may increase in coughing and sneezing in patients which may result in more chances of spreading respiratory infections including COVID if the patient is suffering from it," he said.
Moreover, since COVID-19 affects predominantly lungs, and so does pollution, the symptoms and respiratory problems will be manifold. This surge in number, as well as severity in cases, have caused an acute shortage of beds in hospitals and patients are suffering from it, Nayar said.