/ 14 January 2021

Medical oxygen suppliers see spike in demand

Safrica Health Virus
A professional healthcare worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) carry an oxygen tank inside a temporary ward dedicated to the treatment of possible COVID-19 coronavirus patients at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in Pretoria on January 11, 2021. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP)

As hospitals deal with an increasing number of Covid-19 cases, medical oxygen suppliers have also seen an up-to-fourfold increase in demand for their products. 

In the past two weeks, more than 1 300 new patients have been admitted to hospitals across the country. 

“Afrox can confirm that there is a three- to fourfold increase in demand and this is attested to the increase in cases in the identified hotspots,” said Nolundi Rawana, Afrox’s corporate and marketing communications manager. 

According to data from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the past two weeks have seen more than 650 patients having to be put on ventilators. 

Afrox, which supplies oxygen mostly to government facilities, said it started seeing an increase in demand in December.  

Rawana said the situation varied across provinces, but there had been a threefold increase in demand in the KwaZulu-Natal area in the last week. The company has sufficient supplies at the moment, she added. 

“There is no shortage of Afrox-supplied medical oxygen in South Africa. Afrox has in excess of 1 250 tons of liquid oxygen in its backup storage footprint alone.”

However, the company has experienced logistical problems, as it is responsible for only a portion of this supply chain. But Rawana said the company had managed to make contingency arrangements that were assisting it to meet the increased demand. 

Dr Angelique Coetzee, the chairperson of the South African Medical Association, explained that in treatment of Covid-19, oxygen is the “mainstay”. 

She said that hospital admissions generally occur because patients were battling to breathe and needed extra oxygen.

Coetzee said though oxygen would be available at hospitals, technical difficulties might occur that could affect the oxygen supply. Coetzee explained an incident that happened early this month at the Lenmed Shifa private hospital in Durban, where six patients died when their oxygen supply was interrupted. There has been no explanation for how that happened, although the hospital said it was investigating. 

Air Liquide, which serves private hospitals in the country, reported that the increase in demand for medical oxygen had been significant. However, this was dependent on the area in which the hospital is located. 

“The surge is due to an increase in Covid‑19 admissions as well as the increased use of the high-flow nasal oxygen treatment option. To deal with the demand, we have reallocated our supply chain resources to serve hospitals in priority areas,” the company said in a statement. 

“We have sent our industrial clients a notice of force majeure to inform them of a possible and momentary interruption of our deliveries,” it said. Such a notice can be implemented when a company faces external events that significantly impact its business and are beyond its control, intending to adjust standard deliveries in coordination with its clients.Ventilators are a hospital intervention while some oxygen nasal cannula machines, oxygen concentrators and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) devices can be used at home. Gauteng health spokesperson Kwara Kekana noted that ventilators were not the only method for treating Covid-19 patients. “We believe that we are achieving good outcomes with CPAP and high-flow [oxygen] devices.”