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Families of Covid-19 patients stock up on oxygen cylinders

By Rupsa Chakraborty, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON JUN 11, 2020 12:29 AM IST

Amid the shortage of beds with oxygen facilities, families of Covid-19 patients are providing oxygen therapy at home, even as they wait for a vacant spot in hospitals. Doctors, however, have prohibited the use of oxygen cylinders at home without medical supervision or prescription.

Almost 10% of patients, especially those suffering from asthma and cardiac ailments, need oxygen support as Covid-19 is a respiratory infection that affects the lungs, leading to low oxygen saturation levels. While oxygen saturation level for most healthy individuals is around 95% — meaning at least 95% of the blood in the body carries oxygen – it can drop to as low as 75% among Covid-19 patients and cause death.

With the cases rising each day, most hospitals are flooded with patients. Currently, 3,424 of the 4,650 beds with oxygen are occupied across city hospitals. The scale of the outbreak has resulted in patients being forced to wait for hours – stretching to days at times – which can lower oxygen saturation among patients. Consequently, many families are stocking up portable oxygen bottles as a precautionary measure. According to the All Food and Drug Licence Holder Foundation (AFDLHF), the demand for oxygen cylinders and bottles in the past one month alone has gone up by 70%.

Nidhi Salvi, a 61-year-old resident of Sion Koliwada, developed fever with breathlessness on May 29. She took over-the-counter medicines, but her condition started to deteriorate soon. On calling the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) helpline number (1916), Salvi was placed 53rd on the waiting list. “She was struggling to breathe. We then rushed to a nearby medical store and rented an oxygen cylinder to aid her breathing. The shopkeeper, through a video call, helped me set up the machine,” said Surendra, Salvi’s 39-year-old son. After waiting for 34 hours, she finally got a bed at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital, also known as Sion Hospital. Having received oxygen supply, her saturation level didn’t fall below 90%.

“On hospitalisation, the doctor told that my mother had developed pneumonia, but she survived due to the oxygen provided,” said Surendra.

Non-profit organisation NESH (Nobody Ever Sleeps Hungry) that supplies oxygen cylinders in five wards (A, B, C, D and E) stretching from Nariman Point to Mumbai Central receives more than 50 calls every day. “Other than hospital beds, finding an ambulance on time is a struggle. In order to save time, we started an oxygen facility. We guide families on how to use it via video calls. With growing awareness, we have also begun getting orders from people from far-off locations,” said Zohar Diwan, founder, NESH.

NESH provides oxygen on the basis of doctor’s prescription. “Doctors mention the amount of oxygen required and we provide the cylinder accordingly and guide them,” said Diwan. “Family members are instructed to regulate the knob according to the markings on the cylinder.”

A user has to give a refundable security deposit of 4,000 and a charge of 400 has been fixed for every cylinder. However, the service is free for people who can’t afford it. “The growing fear of Covid-19 is resulting in many people developing breathlessness, which further adds to the panic and leads to stocking up of portable oxygen bottles at home,” said Abhay Pandey, national president, AFDLHF.

“If oxygen is supplied inappropriately, a patient can even die from oxygen toxication. Families of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease need to be more careful. I don’t recommend home-based oxygen therapy. Oxygen is a harmful drug,” said Dr Sundeep Salvi, director of Chest Research Foundation.

“We are focusing on increasing ward-wise supply of oxygen. We have installed portable oxygen units at different wards. At K-ward, we have installed 15 oxygen concentrators for patients with breathlessness,” said Suresh Kakani, additional commissioner, BMC.

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