Kenyans Hoard Oxygen Cylinders, Starving Hospitals of Gas

Kenyan hospitals are running out of oxygen as the number of Covid-19 patients surge and individuals and companies are holding onto cylinders that would normally be available to health facilities.

Demand for oxygen has more than doubled to 880 tons a month from 410 tons before the coronavirus pandemic struck, Health Secretary Mutahi Kagwe said in a televised briefing. The nation has 50,000 medical oxygen cylinders, but only 60% of them are in circulation, said Marion Gathoga-Mwangi, managing director of BOC Gases Ltd,.

“I wish to make an appeal to those holding cylinders -- be they hospital facilities or individuals in other sectors -- please return those cylinders to manufacturers so they can refill and use them in hospitals that need them,” Kagwe said on Monday.

Many of the cylinders, color-coded black and white for medical use, could be lying in hospital storerooms, or may have been converted for industrial use such as welding, according to Gathoga-Mwangi. The cost of importing a medical cylinder is 80,000 shillings ($730), she said by phone Tuesday.

Kenyans Hoard Oxygen Cylinders, Starving Hospitals of Gas

Public health facilities in the East African nation have only 16% of the gas they need, Kagwe said. While the state has 73 oxygen plants across the country, some of the facilities are producing gas with concentration levels that are at a “significant variation” from the government’s own standards, he said.

Where companies want to step in, such as Devki Steel Mills Ltd.’s offer to provide free oxygen for public hospitals, there are no cylinders. Central and county government hospitals can collect the gas at Devki’s factories “in exchange for empty cylinders,” the company said on Monday.

One solution would be to install high-capacity tanks at hospitals and to pipe oxygen directly to beds, according to Gathoga-Mwangi. BOC can install the storage at its own cost and charge hospital for refills. The tanks cost as much as 15 million shillings for 20,000 liters, she said.

‘Very Worrying’

Kenyan hospitals are grappling with record numbers of critical-care patients, stretching a system that was inadequate even before the outbreak of Covid-19. Intensive care units are filled with Covid-19 invalids, especially in the capital, Nairobi, the epicenter of the pandemic, according to Kagwe. The positivity rate for tests was 26.6% on Monday, compared to about 2% at the start of the year.

Kenya has just over 300 ICU beds and 7,411 isolation beds nationally, according to the Presidency.

“Even before coronavirus, our ICUs were full,” said Evanson Kamuri, chief executive officer of the Kenyatta National Hospital, the nation’s biggest referral facility. “The wards are also facing pressure from Covid-19 cases.”

The number of hospitalized patients rose to 1,270 by Monday and another 4,620 are in home-based isolation and care. Deaths have also climbed with 18 fatalities reported on Monday, bringing the total to 2,135 people. So far, 131,116 cases have been detected, according to Health Ministry data. Many more cases and deaths may not have been diagnosed.

The scenario “is very worrying,” Kagwe said.

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