An unspecified number of COVID-19 patients died due to “insufficient oxygen being available” at a hospital in Andhra Pradesh’s Tirupati during the second wave, the centre told Parliament on Tuesday.
Responding to a question from Telugu Desam Party MP K Ravindra Kumar, junior Health Minister Dr Bharati Pravin Pawar told the Rajya Sabha that state government data indicated “some patients” died in the interval between refilling of the main tank and the hospital switching to its backup supply.
“As per the preliminary report, it appears the interval between the leveling out of 10KL oxygen tank and the switching on of the backup manifold system of this hospital resulted in the drop in pressure in the oxygen lines,” Dr Pawar said.
“The drop in the pressure in the oxygen lines led to insufficient oxygen being available for the patients mainly on ventilator support,” she said in her reply.
The deaths occurred at the Sri Venkateswara Ramnarayan Ruia Hospital in Tirupati, the junior Health Minister also said, although she did not specify when they happened.
However, in May – when the second Covid wave was at its peak, and hospitals were scrambling to find beds, medicines – 11 people at the SVRR Hospital died after oxygen supply was disrupted.
Disturbing visuals captured the chaos inside hospital wards as the medical staff tried to save lives.
At the time patients’ families had alleged oxygen supply had been disrupted for approximately 45 minutes. But Chittoor District Collector M Hari Narayanan said “there was a five-minute lag in reloading the oxygen cylinder that caused the pressure to drop”, which led to the deaths.
A massive row broke out last month after Dr Pawar told the Rajya Sabha “no deaths due to lack of oxygen were reported” during the second COVID-19 wave.
The statement triggered howls of protest, with the opposition pointing to social media appeals and cases filed by hospitals frantically looking for help for patients on oxygen support.
“It is completely false to say no one died due to the oxygen crisis. Why were hospitals making desperate appeals everyday at the High Court?” Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain lashed out.
The centre responded by directing states and UTs to submit data on deaths due to the lack of oxygen; the information, the centre said, would be collated and presented to Parliament.
Andhra Pradesh is one of only two states, so far, to report oxygen supply-related deaths; the other is Punjab, which said four deaths were “suspected” to be due to a lack of oxygen.
The shortfall in supply of medical oxygen was one of the more heartbreaking headlines from the second wave, with individuals and hospitals asking for help on social media and before the courts.
In Delhi, a doctor was among 12 who died at a private hospital after oxygen supplies ran out. At another hospital 25 deaths were reported. In Goa over 80 died at a state-run medical facility.
The centre has insisted the ‘lack of supply’ was the result of a transportation issue – moving the gas from where it was produced to where it was needed – and not a manufacturing problem.
The shortfall was, however, severe enough to force the centre to import oxygen, rush to set up new production plants and turn to other countries for help in setting up emergency facilities.