SA at risk of oxygen shortfall

Image: Flickr

SA at risk of oxygen shortfall amid runaway Covid-19 pandemic

Netcare CEO Dr. Richard Friedland warned late last year that ventilators or certain oxygen delivery modalities may not be available to all patients as the surge in Covid-19 infections has placed “significant and unprecedented demand” on the hospital group’s facilities.

SA at risk of oxygen shortfall

Image: Flickr

Medical-grade oxygen usage is surging in South Africa amid a second wave of coronavirus infections, with suppliers struggling to keep pace with demand and increasing their deliveries.

As the country’s infection rates and death toll continue to climb, Air Liquide SA, Afrox Healthcare Ltd., and Air Products said they have been forced to change their delivery schedules to hospitals, with some now taking place daily rather than weekly.

Afrox services mostly government facilities.

Air Liquide mainly supplies private facilities and said “consumption from our hospital customers has increased by three to four times.”

“Some regions have experienced a more than six-fold increase, while some specific hospitals have experienced an as much as 10-fold increase in consumption.”

Hospitals and suppliers caught by surprise

The rise in demand has caught hospitals and their suppliers off-guard as the government its advisors expected the second wave of Covid-19 infections to strike in February 2021 rather than November 2020.

This second wave has been driven by the emergence of a more transmissible variant of the virus, and is among the main factors behind the acceleration in new cases.

“The health system had been laid out to see a resurgence of the pandemic, but not so early,” said Ian Sanne, a member of Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s Ministerial Advisory Council on Covid-19

Sanne, an infectious diseases doctor who heads the NPO Right to Care, further revealed that an audit of government hospitals identified “150 facilities that needed upgrades to their oxygen supplies.”

Thirty-six of those have been completed, with the process taking as long as six weeks at each facility, he said.

Many of the hospitals that haven’t been upgraded are dependent on oxygen supplied in 10.2 kilogram (22 pound) gas cylinders, Sanne told Bloomberg.

There is a risk of cylinder shortages, with a single Covid-19 patient using as many as 10 a day, and cylinders that are usually used for nitrogen, argon, or air are being re-purposed, according to Sanne.

Oxygen demand impacting on industrial entities

The increase in demand for medical oxygen may jeopardise supplies to industrial customers and neighbouring countries.

Air Liquide and Afrox have issued force majeure notices to their industrial customers, warning that supply may be interrupted, Business Day reported Monday, citing copies of the letters.

“As the company also supplies non-medical grade oxygen into industry and various industrial applications, Afrox has the ability to divert supply from these sectors and refine the product to medical-grade standard,” the company said.

As of Sunday South Africa had reported 1.23 million confirmed coronavirus infections and over 33,000 deaths, making it the worst-hit country in Africa.