From Shortage of Hospital Beds, Staff to Now Oxygen, Why US is Gasping for Breath as Delta Wreaks Havoc

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The United States, which has been grappling with a rising number of Covid-19 cases as the Delta variant wreaks havoc, now has a new problem at hand — that of oxygen scarcity.

Hospitals in parts of the South are running out of oxygen supply as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations continue soaring, driven by the swaths of people who remain unvaccinated and a dangerous coronavirus variant that has infected millions of Americans.

Several hospitals in Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Louisiana are struggling with oxygen scarcity. Some are at risk of having to use their reserve supply or risk running out of oxygen imminently, according to state health officials and hospital consultants.

What's the issue?

Donna Cross, senior director of facilities and construction at Premier — a health care performance improvement company — told CNN: “Normally, an oxygen tank would be about 90% full, and the suppliers would let them get down to a refill level of 30-40% left in their tank, giving them a three- to five-day cushion of supply,” said Cross. “What’s happening now is that hospitals are running down to about 10-20%, which is a one- to two-day supply on hand, before they’re getting backfilled.” Even when they’re getting backfill, it’s only a partial supply of about 50%, Cross said. “It is very critical situation.”

Florida on Saturday had the highest Covid-19 hospitalization rate in the country, with 75 patients per 100,000 residents in hospitals with the virus, according to data from federal health officials and Johns Hopkins University. It also reached yet another pandemic high of Covid-19 cases Friday, reporting 690.5 new cases per 100,000 people each day from August 20 to August 26, state data showed.

Hospitals in Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and West Virginia are all reaching dangerously low amounts of oxygen, with many relying on reserve tanks.

Hurricane ida complicating covid relief

Louisiana’s overall vaccination rate remains among the lowest in the nation at 41.2% — and the state’s hospitals are dealing with hundreds of Covid-19 patients as Hurricane Ida slams the region.

Some 2,450 people were hospitalized with Covid-19 in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Saturday, which is a drop of 20% in the past 10 days. But it’s still the most the state has had since before the current surge in cases.

Hurricane Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, on Sunday as a dangerous Category 4 hurricane. Possible injuries from the storm stand to compound the risk of health care facilities being overwhelmed, given Covid-19 patients already occupy hospitals at high rates.

Edwards pointed out that he’s worried about lengthy power outages. The state has about 10,000 lineworkers ready to go and another 20,000 on standby to assist as soon as necessary.

“Evacuating hospitals is not going to be possible because there’s nowhere to bring those patients to, there’s no excess capacity anywhere else in the state or outside the state,” Edwards said.

“Then you have people who may be injured as a result of the hurricane itself, and so we need to make sure we have some capacity for them,” he said. “We still have a very, very challenging situation here across the state of Louisiana.”

Young at more risk?

Hospitalizations of children due to Covid-19 could continue to increase as more of them return to classrooms this fall. “There is no question that we’re headed into a really tough time for young people,” Dr. Esther Choo told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

Notably, children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Not all schools in the US have opened yet, but the remaining ones are expected to open after Labor Day, which is when Choo said children’s Covid-19 hospitalizations could increase. “We’re no doubt going to see more of what we’re seeing now, which is hospitals just bursting with pediatric admissions,” she said, noting Covid-19 deaths of children will also become more common.

What does fauci say?

Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, says as many as 100,000 new Covid-19 deaths in the US by December is "predictable but preventable" as dozens of states reported rapidly increasing fatalities.

The Delta variant of the virus has pushed up deaths in 14 states by more than 50% in a week, and by at least 10% in 28 more, according to Johns Hopkins University. Those figures follow a dire warning from the University of Washington that tens of thousands more could die, with a daily peak of 1,400 by mid-September. On Sunday, Johns Hopkins put the US death toll from Covid-19 at almost 637,000.

Vaccine hesitancy is decreasing, figures show, with an average of about 900,000 shots being administered each day in the US, up 80% in a month. This week, Biden hailed full Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the Pfizer vaccine for those 16 and older as "a key milestone" in the coronavirus fight.

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