High-flow nasal oxygen at Tygerberg Hospital. Picture: Damien Schumann
High-flow nasal oxygen at Tygerberg Hospital. Picture: Damien Schumann

Medical-grade oxygen usage is surging in SA amid a second wave of coronavirus infections, leaving suppliers struggling to keep pace with demand.

As infection rates reach record highs, Air Liquide, Afrox Healthcare and Air Products are boosting deliveries to hospitals, with some now taking place daily rather than weekly. Air Liquide mainly supplies private hospitals, while Afrox supplies mostly government facilities.

“Consumption from our hospital customers has increased by three to four times,” Air Liquide said in a response to queries. “Some regions have experienced a more than sixfold increase, while some specific hospitals have experienced an as much as tenfold increase in consumption.”

The rise in demand has caught hospitals and their suppliers by surprise as the authorities and scientists advising them expected the second wave of infections to begin in February rather than November. The emergence of a more transmissible variant of the virus 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, an infectious diseases doctor who heads Right to Care, a non-profit organisation that provides treatment to people with HIV and associated diseases.

Sanne, a member of health minister Zweli Mkhize’s ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, said an audit of government hospitals identified 150 that needed upgrades to their oxygen supplies. Sanne said 36 of those had been completed, with the process taking as long as six weeks at each facility.

Many of the hospitals that have not been upgraded are dependent on oxygen supplied in 10.2kg gas cylinders. 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 repurposed, according to Sanne. There is a need to urgently train more people to drive oxygen tankers, he said.

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 on Monday.

“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 product to medical-grade standard,” the company said in a response to queries.

By Sunday, SA had reported 1.23-million confirmed coronavirus infections and more than 33,000 deaths, making it the worst-hit country in Africa.


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