Amazon city scrambles to provide oxygen to COVID-19 patients

·5 min read

SAO PAULO — Hospital staff and relatives of COVID-19 patients rushed to provide facilities with oxygen tanks just flown into the Amazon rainforest's biggest city as doctors chose which patients would breathe amid dwindling stocks and an effort to airlift some of them to other states.

As heavy rain poured down Thursday in Manaus, Rafael Pereira carried a small tank containing five cubic meters of oxygen for his mother-in-law at the 28 de Agosto hospital. He didn’t want to be interviewed because of his stress, but he looked relieved when the tank — which he said would aid her breathing for an additional two hours — was taken inside.

Health workers at the Hospital Universitario Getulio Vargas took empty cylinders to its oxygen provider in the hopes there would be some to retrieve. Usually, the provider picks up the cylinders and brings newly refilled ones.

Despairing patients in overloaded hospitals waited as oxygen arrived to save some, but came too late for others. At least one of the cemeteries of Manaus, a city of 2.2 million people, had mourners lining up to enter and bury their dead. Brazilian artists, soccer clubs and politicians used their platforms to cry for help.

Brazil's health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, said Thursday that a second plane with medical supplies — including oxygen — would arrive Friday, and four others later. The local government’s oxygen provider, multinational White Martins, said in a statement that it was considering diverting some of its supply from neighbouring Venezuela. It wasn't immediately clear whether this would be sufficient to address the spiraling crisis.

“Yes, there is a collapse in the health care system in Manaus. The line for beds is growing by a lot — we have 480 people waiting now,” Pazuello said in a broadcast on social media. “We are starting to remove patients with less serious (conditions) to reduce the impact.”

Hospitals in Manaus admitted few new COVID-19 patients Thursday, suggesting many will suffer from the disease at home, and some may die.

The strain prompted Amazonas state's government to say it would transport 235 patients who depend on oxygen but aren't in intensive care units to five other states and the federal capital, Brasilia.

“I want to thank those governors who are giving us their hand in a human gesture,” Amazonas Gov. Wilson Lima said at a news conference Thursday.

"All of the world looks at us when there is a problem as the Earth’s lungs," he said, alluding to a common description of the Amazon. "Now we are asking for help. Our people need this oxygen.”

Governors and mayors throughout the country offered help amid a flood of social media videos in which distraught relatives of COVID-19 patients in Manaus begged for people to buy them oxygen.

Federal prosecutors in the city, however, asked a local judge to pressure President Jair Bolsonaro's administration to step up its support. The prosecutors said later in the day that the main air force plane in the region for oxygen supply transportation “needs repair, which brought a halt to the emergency influx.”

The air force said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press that it was deploying two planes to transport patients, starting Friday. The health ministry didn't respond to a request for comment about transportation plans.

The U.S Embassy in Brasilia confirmed it had received a request from the federal government to support the initiative, without providing details.

Local authorities recently called on the federal government to reinforce Manaus' stock of oxygen. The city’s 14-day death toll is approaching the peak of last year’s first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, according to official data.

In that first peak, Manaus consumed a maximum 30,000 cubic meters (about 1 million cubic feet) of oxygen per day, and now the need has more than doubled to nearly 70,000 cubic meters, according to White Martins.

“Due to the strong impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the consumption of oxygen in the city increased exponentially over the last few days in comparison with a volume that was already extremely high," White Martins said in an emailed statement to AP. "Demand is much higher than anything predictable and ... continues to grow significantly.”

The company added that Manaus’ remote location presents challenging logistics, requiring additional stocks to be transported by boat and by plane..

The governor also decreed more health restrictions, including the suspension of public transportation and establishing a curfew between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The new measures challenged protesters who on Thursday carried Brazilian flags through the streets. Lima, once seen as an ally of Bolsonaro, has faced criticism from supporters of the conservative president for imposing new restrictions aimed at stemming the virus' recent surge.

Bolsonaro has downplayed risks of the disease, saying the economic fallout of the pandemic will kill more than the virus. His son Eduardo, a lawmaker who chairs the international relations committee in Brazil's lower house, was one of the many conservatives who egged on their supporters in December to challenge social distancing and disobey stay at home orders.

Park of the Tribes, a community of more than 2,500 Indigenous people on the outskirts of Manaus, went more than two months without any resident showing COVID-19 symptoms. In the past week, 29 people have tested positive for the coronavirus, said Vanda Ortega, a volunteer nurse in the community. Two went to urgent care units, but no one yet has required hospitalization.

“We’re really very worried,” said Ortega, who belongs to the Witoto ethnicity. “It’s chaos here in Manaus. There isn’t oxygen for anyone.”

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Associated Press writer Mauricio Savarese reported this story in Sao Paulo and AP writer David Biller reported from Rio de Janeiro. AP photographer Edmar Barros contributed to this report from Manaus.

Mauricio Savarese And David Biller, The Associated Press