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Hawaii hospitals begin to ration oxygen as large influx of COVID patients strains supply

Published: Aug. 30, 2021 at 3:53 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 31, 2021 at 10:14 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - With no sign of Hawaii’s COVID surge leveling out, hospitals are tackling a worrisome new problem: All the extra patients are straining the state’s oxygen supply.

Over the past month, as COVID hospitalizations have grown along with infection counts, daily consumption for medical grade oxygen has jumped 250%, officials say. Hospital leaders held an emergency meeting Monday to discuss ways to conserve the finite resource.

“When resources are scarce we want to ensure that we’re using oxygen appropriately,” said Hilton Raethel, head of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii.

He added oxygen consumption in Hawaii has increased to the point where demand could soon exceed what the state’s two production facilities can supply.

Medical grade or liquid oxygen is used to treat patients with serious respiratory illnesses like emphysema, lung cancer and COVID-19.

“Normally, we have plenty supply,” Raethel said.

“The challenge is the very dramatic increase of COVID hospitalizations over the month of August has gotten to the point where we may need to bring in oxygen from the mainland.”

It’s something that’s rarely done.

What’s making it even more of a challenge is a worldwide shortage of ISO tanks, the containers needed to transport liquid oxygen via cargo ship.

The state is currently working with the federal government to figure out a solution.

Hawaii Pacific Health President and CEO Ray Vara recently directed staff in an internal memo to conserve the oxygen supply and “avoid using oxygen for anything that is elective.”

“We will therefore need to cancel all elective procedures in operating rooms and elsewhere, including outpatient settings, where oxygen may be needed. Any cases that can be deferred safely should be deferred until the oxygen supply solutions are clearer,” he wrote. “At each HPH facility, surgical and facility leaders will be activating review processes to help with these decisions.”

Lt. Gov. Josh Green said the situation is all the more concerning given that cases continue to soar.

“Going into Labor Day weekend we should be cautious,” said Green, who is encouraging people to avoid gatherings and stay at home over the holiday.

As of Monday, there were 418 people statewide hospitalized with COVID.

Health officials say 88% of them are unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, hospitals continue to deal with staff shortages and help from the mainland is slow to arrive. For the second week in a row, Hawaii welcomed about 40 fewer traveling nurses than expected.

“We have 409 FEMA-funded personnel in the state as of today. And we have another wave coming next weekend,” Raethel said.

He added the state’s two oxygen production sites are operating at full capacity and are now producing medical gas only.

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