California’s New Covid-Related “Hidden Disaster”: Critically Low Oxygen Supply

On Monday, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced the creation of a statewide “Oxygen Strategy” to confront a new, critical problem: lack of oxygen for those afflicted with Covid-19. He said a “task force on oxygen” was stood up a week ago.

One of the prime indications of Covid-19 is a sharp drop in a patient’s oxygen levels. Thus, the use of supplementary oxygen is critical to combatting the virus. And as more cases have become more serious in the state, with hospitalizations increasing seven-fold in the last two months, the available supply of medical oxygen has dwindled.

On Monday, Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services issued a directive to paramedic crews to limit the use of oxygen, reserving it for only patients in the most need. Hospitalizations in Los Angeles are at the highest number of the entire pandemic and it “just continues to grow and grow,” said the county’s Director of Health Services Dr. Christina Ghaly.
Ghaly revealed that a staggering 3/4 of all patients in L.A. County ICUs are there because of Covid. That’s creating a massive demand for oxygen.

“A lot of our hospitals are older,” said L.A. EMS Agency director Kathy Chidester on Thursday. “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.”

Chidester called the situation inside L.A. hospitals “a hidden disaster. It’s not a fire, it’s not a train wreck,” she said. “It’s happening behind closed doors.”

One way hospitals have been trying to deal with the disaster is by sending less-critical patients home to receive care there. But the oxygen supply shortage is hampering those efforts, as well. Not only is the requisite gas hard to find, the bottles in which medical oxygen are held are also getting scarce.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has sent experts to help with the oxygen delivery systems at five of L.A. county’s older hospitals and, according to the Washington Post, two in hard-hit San Bernardino County. Newsom said the state was also focused on assisting hospitals in the San Joaquin Valley, which was among the of the state’s regions to run of ICU capacity.

“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,” said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The deployment of the Army Cops of Engineers is part of the governor’s Oxygen Strategy, which also includes “prepping 42 Disaster Medical Support Units across the state as oxygen units” and the leasing of 4 mobile oxygen systems as rapid deployment resources.” The state is also working with oxygen vendors to support Covid-19 patients in their homes.

On Tuesday, the state reported 31,440 new cases, which is down from recent record highs, but still nearly double what the count was when Newsom implemented the most recent Stay-at-Home order. Likewise the number of daily deaths at 368. The number of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 in the state was at an all time high, with ICU availability very near and all-time low.

City News Service contributed to this report.

You can watch Governor Newsom’s Monday news conference below.

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