Lack of oxygen, beds adds woes to COVID-19 patients in Nepal

Jagat Bahadur Karki, 35, a COVID-19 patient who has to isolate himself at home in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley due to an acute shortage of oxygen at hospitals, struggled for breath on Saturday night as his oxygen level came down as low as 82 percent.

“I struggled for breath, continued vomiting and had diarrhea,” Karki, who lives with his wife and son in a rented house in Bhaktapur district in the valley, told Xinhua over the phone.

“My family and friends made several inquiries from several sources for oxygen but they could not find any,” he said.

According to the doctors, a person’s normal blood oxygen level should be above 90 percent of the saturation point (100 percent).

As he spoke, Karki sounded struggling for breath, and very little was asked about his health. His oxygen level still was only 84 percent on Sunday morning.

“One needs to be hospitalized immediately if the oxygen level goes below 90 percent,” said Sagar Kumar Rajbhandari, director at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital.

Despite his effort, Karki failed to get himself admitted to a hospital, as all hospitals approached by his family cited the lack of beds and oxygen.

One hour after the conversation with Karki, his wife Manju was pleading for help to take him to hospital, saying her husband’s condition was deteriorating.

As Karki was struggling at home, hospitals are scrambling to get enough oxygen for admitted patients. With hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, oxygen is in short supply in the country.

Nepal has been ravaged by a deadly second wave of coronavirus over the past weeks, which has resulted in record numbers of new infections and deaths and laid bare the country’s poor health infrastructure.

On Saturday, the Himalayan country recorded 8,287 new cases through polymerase chain reaction tests and 131 through antigen tests. It is the fourth consecutive day the nation reported over 8,000 cases in a single day.

In face of a swelling number of patients, several hospitals have issued public notices saying they are no longer capable of taking new COVID-19 patients due to the lack of oxygen.

On Saturday, Medicare Hospital, Nepal Bharat Maitri Hospital, Dirghayu Guru Hospital and Helping Hands Community Hospital, all based in the Kathmandu Valley, issued a joint statement saying they had stopped taking more COVID-19 patients due to a shortage of medical oxygen.

“Until oxygen is made available adequately, the service will be provided for the limited COVID-19 patients only,” they said.

Likewise, Karuna Hospital and Ganeshman Singh Memorial Hospital and Research Centre issued similar statements about their inability to take more patients over an inadequate supply of oxygen.

Most hospitals do not have their own oxygen plants but depend on supply from the outside.

The Green City Hospital, a private hospital based in Kathmandu, has turned away some 50 COVID-19 patients per day in the past three days.

“If we take more COVID-19 patients, we cannot provide oxygen to the patients already admitted at the hospital. So we have no other alternative but to turn away new patients,” said Lok Bahadur Tandan, chairman of Green City Hospital.

Still, the hospital let in 35 patients and sent 13 of them into the intensive care units before rejecting new applications.

“We need over 250 cylinders of oxygen per day but we have been able to manage only around 180 cylinders per day,” Tandan said.

Oxygen manufacturers are overwhelmed as well by the growing demand for oxygen from hospitals.

“Our capacity is to produce around 800 cylinders a day but we have been facing demand for over 2,500 cylinders in a day,” said Narayan Timilsina, chairman of the Sagarmatha Oxygen Nepal Private Limited.

“During normal times, we used to supply oxygen to hospitals with our vehicles, but now vehicles sent by hospitals are overwhelming our factory,” he added.

On top of insufficient oxygen, COVID-19 patients are also facing a shortage of ICU beds at hospitals, and calls for oxygen and ICU beds are growing on social media.

Isha Joshi searched for ICU beds overnight for her 42-year-old mother, a COVID-19 patient, from Saturday evening after a doctor advised her to try her luck in another hospital.

Her mother Saraswati was treated at the Kathmandu-based National Ayurveda Research and Training Centre for the last week. But as her condition worsened, the doctor advised her to find an ICU bed in another hospital, citing the lack of ICU beds in the center.

“Despite overnight search for an ICU bed in many hospitals in Kathmandu, I could not find one for my mother,” Joshi said.

Government officials acknowledged that the situation is getting worse and more desperate.

“The situation is pathetic. We are helpless. Hospitals are seeking help but we have not been able to provide any support to them,” Sameer Kumar Adhikari, joint spokesman at the Ministry of Health and Population, told Xinhua.

“There is an increasing need for oxygen for COVID-19 patients staying in home isolation too,” he said. “Now, people are dying on their way to the hospital. We fear many people may die at home starting next week if we fail to manage adequate oxygen supply.”