Hospitals in Brazil’s Amazon Region Capital Run Out of Oxygen

An oxygen tank is seen as Juan Carlos Lara, 59, a patient with COVID-19, is taken inside a security capsule, on an air ambulance transferring him from Iquitos to the Intensive Care Unit of the Rebagliati Hospital, in Lima, on September 01, 2020. - A small air ambulance is helping …
ERNESTO BENAVIDES/AFP via Getty Images

Hospitals in Manaus, the regional capital of Brazil’s Amazonas deep in the eponymous rain forest, began reporting shortages of oxygen Thursday, reportedly forcing doctors to inject dying Chinese coronavirus patients with morphine to ease the pain of asphyxiation.

The panic in Manaus also resulted in some families attempting to bring private tanks of oxygen to hospitals for their loved ones and a Brazilian Air Force initiative to fly the most vulnerable patients out to better-equipped hospitals in other states. Oxygen use in hospitals skyrocketed in Manaus after scientists reported the discovery of a new, Amazonian strain of Chinese coronavirus in the region.

Brazil is enduring one of the world’s most severe outbreaks of Chinese coronavirus, documenting over 8 million cases of the disease and about 207,000 deaths as of Friday.

Reports late Thursday in Brazilian newspapers were dire. Folha de Sao Paulo, citing healthcare workers in Manaus, said workers in one hospital claimed to have lost an entire ward of patients to asphyxiation. A researcher speaking to the newspaper predicted that those in intensive care units who need oxygen and were deprived, but survive the ordeal, may live the rest of their lives with significant brain damage due to oxygen deprivation.

Estadao, another Brazilian newspaperquoted a doctor in the Getúlio Vargas Hospital of Manaus, where some of the most graphic reports have been alleged to come, stating that doctors began using morphine on patients who appeared on the verge of death in intensive care units due to lack of oxygen. The doctor also stated that, to replace the oxygen that ventilators were lacking, doctors and other healthcare workers began using manual pumps to keep patients breathing.

“The oxygen supply ended at Hospital Getúlio Vargas at around 6:30 a.m. [Thursday],” the doctor allegedly told the newspaper. “I am a resident doctor and I do not usually work directly in caring for patients with [Chinese coronavirus], but when I heard what was happening, I went to the [coronavirus] wing as a volunteer because colleagues needed help to [manually pump] patients. That tires [the person doing it].”

The doctor said the health workers traded off once each person pumping could no longer do it due to pain in their hands and general exhaustion.

“When we see that there is no way [to save a patient], we start the morphine, to give some comfort,” the doctor said.

Estadao counted at least five deaths at the Getúlio Vargas hospital.

UOL, an online Brazilian outlet, reported that the families of those in intensive care units began to desperately use social media on Thursday to try to find tanks of oxygen gas from private vendors. Some locals with money did successfully bring in oxygen cylinders to some hospitals, though it did little to reduce the high demand.

The Brazilian Air Force also began to fly patients out of Manaus to cities in at least six other states early Friday. The states reportedly are experiencing milder coronavirus outbreaks and thus have enough oxygen to accept more patients; the patients chosen were those considered in strong enough a state to travel.

The Brazilian military also announced plans prior to the eruption of media coverage Wednesday to establish a field hospital to fight coronavirus in Manaus and to ship 50 tons of medical equipment and other great to the crisis-stricken city. Among the equipment the military listed as being flown in “urgently” were 386 oxygen cylinders. The move was reportedly a response to a request for help from Amazonas Gov. Wilson Lima.

Lima issued a statement Thursday announcing that Amazonas had filed a lawsuit against its oxygen supplier in response to the shortages. He also stated that the federal government of President Jair Bolsonaro had mobilized to resolve the problem “as quickly as possible.” The government would also form a “support group” for families of those who died of lack of oxygen.

Lima did not take any responsibility for the shortages in the statement, as written on the official website of the Amazonas government, and also announced significantly stricter lockdown restrictions statewide in response to the disaster.

White Martins, the company responsible for Manaus’ oxygen supply, told UOL in a statement that the current hospital demand was triple their capacity in the city.

Bolsonaro appeared to be responding to growing online criticism of him for the situation in Manaus on Friday by posting on Twitter the federal budget allotments that went to the city. According to Brasilia, Amazonas was appropriated 8.91 billion reais (about $1.7 billion) in federal funds. The federal government had in the past year spent 475,770,000 reais ($90.3 million) on Manaus alone.

The conservative Brazilian media outlet Terça Livre noted on Friday several apparent irregularities with the way Lima had handled Manaus’ budget. The government of Amazonas, for example, reportedly spent 1.5 million reais ($284,602) on Christmas decorations this season, despite the increasingly high numbers of hospitalizations tied to the Chinese coronavirus. The outlet also reported that local outlets claimed police had found “a truck full of oxygen cylinders” in Manaus that had been “deviated from the state health system.” The report did not note if police had any suspicion regarding where the cylinders were going or who was responsible for the apparent theft, save for an unnamed 38-year-old man reportedly arrested at the scene.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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