Story at a glance

  • Patients in intensive care units (ICU) may require oxygen if their blood saturation levels drop.
  • California’s governor announced statewide efforts to deal with the oxygen supply situation.
  • Running out of oxygen could lead to more coronavirus related fatalities in ICUs.

Health officials in California have begun recommending conserving oxygen because resources are limited. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced on Monday a statewide oxygen team which will handle mitigation and oxygen support. Los Angeles County advises that EMS only use oxygen for patients with lower than 90 percent oxygen saturation.

If there’s no more oxygen, care in hospitals will be greatly disadvantaged. “Everything stops,” says Tihitena (Tito) Negussie Mammo in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO). “I have even had it happen in the middle of emergency surgery. When it does happen, we have to use a bag and valve mask, attaching a small portable oxygen cylinder if there’s one on hand.”

For health professionals taking care of patients, this could mean more difficulty in managing the disease in patients with severe illness.

“It has been estimated that around one in five people with COVID-19 suffers respiratory distress sufficient to require oxygen therapy,” says Priyanka Relan, a COVID-19 clinical management expert at WHO, in the Bulletin. “Without that therapy, COVID-19 can be fatal.”

The supply of oxygen has been disrupted during the pandemic, but there are also other issues. “A lot of our hospitals are older,” says L.A. EMS Agency director Kathy Chidester to Deadline. “They were not intended to house this many patients. With this surge, there’s a lot of issues around oxygen. They can’t maintain the [proper] oxygen pressure because there are so many patients.”

Another problem is that oxygen pipes in hospitals are freezing when the cold oxygen moves through it. It needs to be delivered cold because that’s how it is stored. “By working to upgrade challenged oxygen delivery systems at these older hospitals we can improve the ability to deliver life-sustaining medical care to those who need it,” says Mark Ghilarducci, who is the director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, to Deadline.


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“This is a deadly disease. This is a deadly pandemic. It remains more deadly today than at any point in the history of this pandemic,” Newsom said, according to KNX 1070 Radio. He notes that technical teams have been deployed to Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Joaquin to help with equipment and supplies.

This is not only a problem in the U.S. For example, a doctor in a video from Egypt can be heard saying “everyone in the ICU has died… there’s no oxygen.” A study in The Lancet states that 43.4 percent of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have both continuous power and oxygen. Data from Malawi suggest that 77 percent of general hospital wards had oxygen availability in 2020.


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There’s some promise in new technologies like pressure swing adsorption plants that can generate oxygen on site, but that may not be feasible in the near term for many places. Other experts suggest pooling purchasing of oxygen, according to the Bulletin. But that would require coordination across local and state government agencies.

“We are getting the oxygen from the largest oxygen plant in the country,” Tito says in the Bulletin, “but we still face this problem.”

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University or the COVID Tracking Project.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Jan 08, 2021