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.
With the continued uptick in Covid-19 cases, there has been more demand on the oxygen supply, and hospitals cannot keep up the pace to meet those needs, 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.
Portable morgues for Central Florida
Covid-19 deaths have increased so much that the Central Florida Disaster Medical Coalition, a federally funded nonprofit that aids in preparing health care system response, has purchased 14 portable morgues with the capacity of 12 decedents each, coalition Executive Director Lynne Drawdy said.
She said that the organization has met with hospitals in the region to find out what their needs are. The hospitals relayed that in the last week more morgue space was the highest priority because there was not adequate capacity – and that they have seen delays in funeral homes picking up those who have died.
Dr. Ahmed Elhaddad, an intensive care unit doctor in Florida, told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Saturday that he’s frustrated and “tired of seeing people die and suffer because they did not take a vaccine.”
He said the Delta variant is “eating” people’s lungs, which eventually leads to their collapse.
“We’re seeing the patients die faster with this (Delta) variant,” said Elhaddad, who is the ICU medical director at Jupiter Medical Center.
“This round, we’re seeing the younger patients – 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds – and they’re suffering. They’re hungry for oxygen, and they’re dying. Unfortunately, this round they’re dying faster,” he said.
The government’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that the US could see an additional 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 by December, as predicted by a University of Washington model.
“What is going on now is both entirely predictable, but entirely preventable. And you know we know we have the wherewithal with vaccines to turn this around,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said.
Elhaddad noted that his ICU does not have a single Covid-19 patient who is vaccinated, nor did he see any vaccinated people die from Covid-19.
“There’s no magic medicine. … The only thing that we’re finding is that the vaccine is preventing death. It’s preventing patients from coming to the ICU,” Elhaddad said.
Fauci pointed to the 80 million Americans who are eligible for the vaccine, but who are not vaccinated. “We could turn this around and we could do it efficiently and quickly if we just get those people vaccinated,” he said.
Florida has fully vaccinated 52.4% of its total population, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Saturday.
Meanwhile, less than 50% of people in South Carolina, Louisiana and Texas – where oxygen supplies are also low – are fully vaccinated. Studies have shown that full vaccination is necessary for optimal protection against the Delta variant.
Nationally, 52.1% of the population was fully vaccinated as of Saturday, CDC data shows.
Hurricane Ida targeting Louisiana as Covid-19 hospitalizations remain high
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, Edwards told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
More than 475 of those patients are on ventilators, according to data from the state department of health.
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.
“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.”
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.
“Restoring power is going to be critically important in order to keep these hospitals up and functioning,” he said.
All of the state’s parishes are in the highest risk category for coronavirus, with widespread, uncontrolled transmission, and many undetected cases, the state health department said.
‘We’re headed into a really tough time for young people,’ doctor says
A return to in-person learning has led to thousands of students having to quarantine across the US, with Covid-19 cases among children surging to levels not seen since winter.
And 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 on Saturday.
Choo, a professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, added that while people had some reassurance last year that the virus wouldn’t affect children as severely, this year is different.
“We’re going back to school in-person, unmasked across the United States. There’s a lot of resistance to things like mask mandates and vaccinations that would keep our kids safer in schools,” she said.
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.
Fauci said he supports mandating Covid-19 vaccines for students who are eligible, noting, “This is not something new. We have mandates in many places in schools, particularly public schools that if in fact you want a child to come in, we’ve done this for decades and decades requiring polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis,” vaccinations.
CNN’s Kristen Holmes, Amanda Watts, Rebekah Riess, Lauren Mascarenhas, Taylor Romine, Elizabeth Joseph and Claire Colbert contributed to this report.