Johannesburg – Major nursing unions warned they are “extremely nervous” about the provision of sufficient oxygen as the country enters the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, provincial health departments are adamant that they were able to secure sufficient oxygen supply during the first and second wave of the pandemic and hence they are confident of their oxygen supplies.
The number of cases continues to climb with more than 4 576 new Covid-19 cases recorded in the country on Saturday (28/5), more than 100 cases overnight bringing the cumulative cases to 1 645 5551. So far 898 955 vaccines have been administered for people aged 60 and above including healthcare workers.
Democratic Nursing Union of South Africa (Denosa) spokesperson, Sibongiseni Delihlazo said they were nervous about the oxygen supplies should the country be hit by a wave similar to the past two Covid-19 spikes in the number of infections early last year and in January 2021 .
Delihlazo warned that the country was likely to suffer the same fate as India if it ignored the early warning signs. “If we have our moment of laxity and ignore all the early warning signs, then we are likely to suffer the same fate as India.”
India’s healthcare facilities ran out of oxygen supply which led to a loss of millions of lives and experts believe this could have been avoided if adequate preparations had been put in place.
“It is worth noting that, as an organisation for nursing, we are extremely nervous about the third wave and particularly the level of preparedness.
“Key to our concerns, over and above the area of sufficient provision of oxygen, is the protection of healthcare workers and patients alike inside healthcare facilities, and the insufficient personnel numbers to man the third wave,” said Delihlazo.
He added: “If anything, to go by the numbers that we have started to see coming from Gauteng, Free State, Northern Cape and the North West, then we are in for a bumpy ride as a country.
“The rate of admission of patients in those provinces is on a steady rise, which should be calling for gathering of heads to ensure that more preparation is done to avoid the mistakes committed in the previous two waves of neglecting the area of provision of oxygen (especially in rural facilities) and augmenting staff numbers,” he said.
“Our immediate concern is the exhaustion of healthcare workers who have been hard at work saving the nation since the first wave. They have not had sufficient time to rest, and this is likely to show in the third wave – in fact we were surprised and it was by some miracle that they did not break down in large numbers during the second wave already.”
Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU) general secretary Rich Sicina said the country was never prepared and a lot of lives were lost unnecessarily during the previous waves. Sicina said: “We have always maintained a posture that South Africa will never be ready for this pandemic to curb it in its totality and to prevent unnecessary deaths of people.
“South Africa’s health system is disorganised and badly run. There is a gross shortage of these (oxygen cylinders). Many health facilities especially in rural areas rely on oxygen cylinders.”
Sicina said during the second wave the Eastern Cape was hard hit by a shortage of oxygen. “They were complaining about shortages of oxygen cylinders. Sometimes they used one oxygen cylinder to give oxygen to more than two patients. It will be a disaster if we are hit like India,” he said.
“If you use one cylinder for two patients, you will run out of oxygen in two hours. The nurses are going to be traumatised watching helplessly as patients die. But If we have adequate resources we will help a lot of patients,” said Sicina.
However, the South African Medical Association (Sama) chairperson, Dr Angelique Coetzee, said that the agreement between the National Department of Health and Afrox would mitigate the supply of liquid oxygen supply. “We never ran out of liquid oxygen for healthcare use during the first or second wave.
“There was, however, a shortage of cylinder oxygen at some public hospitals. It is important to understand that hospitals making use of any form of oxygen must have the right infrastructure, as in pipes and connections to supply the oxygen to hospital beds,” she said.
Gauteng, which is one of the provinces hardest hit, yesterday confirmed Covid-19 cases were sitting at 452 590 with 11 164 deaths recorded so far. There are 26 065 active cases in Gauteng and at the time of going to press the province had reported 2 214 new cases with 77 deaths recorded.
The Gauteng health authorities reported that out of 315 566 contacts traced (individuals who were in contact with people who tested positive for Covid-19), 307 046 people have completed a 10-day monitoring period with no symptoms reported and are therefore, de-isolated.
Gauteng provincial health spokesperson, Kwara Kekana assured the residents and healthcare workers that Afrox has secured sufficient oxygen supply.
“There is security of oxygen supply for the GDoH. We have bi-weekly meetings with Afrox to monitor oxygen demand and utilisation,” said Kekana.
North West health department spokesperson Goitseone Shuping said the department was consistently monitoring the level of oxygen at all its facilities. “The broader plan for dealing with the third wave started efforts to prevent it. This plan includes Resurgence matrix analysis, Early warning systems (triggers), Governance structures, Interventions and Restrictions,” said Shuping.
Western Cape provincial health spokesperson, Nomawethu Sbukwana said the province’ s African Oxygen Limited (Afrox) plant had undertaken to scale up its provisions to respond to an increase in demand.
“This will be supported by the public and private sectors’ joint commitment to addressing the capacity challenges which were identified during the second wave, to ensure that we can respond when a surge takes place.
“The Provincial Department of Health will also continue to monitor how much oxygen is used over the upcoming weeks,” said Sbukwana.
“In the Western Cape, the combined public-private utilisation is currently at 31.84 tons per day or 45.49% of the production capacity. In total, 70 tons are available per day from the Afrox Western Cape plant, which we believe is sufficient to respond at a third-wave peak.”
The National Health department did not respond before the time of this publication.
When asked about how adequately prepared was South Africa for the third wave, especially with oxygen supplies, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) spokesperson David Mandaha said: “We don’t have data on that, and without any scientific guidance cannot comment on those questions.”
The country has been on lockdown level 1 for three months and President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to hold a “family meeting” during the course of this week where he is expected to introduce some stringent measures to curb the spread of the infection that are said to be on a spike with stringent alcohol regulations expected to be announced.