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COVID-19: Patients Die Awaiting Oxygen, Drugs. Is Tamil Nadu Losing the Battle?

The CM has asked the Centre to provide oxygen and Remdesivir to the state, but is still awaiting supplies.
People awaiting Remdesivir medication gather as an announcement is made outside the Government Kilpauk Medical College Hospital in Chennai.

People awaiting Remdesivir medication gather as an announcement is made outside the Government Kilpauk Medical College Hospital in Chennai.

Chennai: The COVID-19 situation in Tamil Nadu is growing grimmer by the day. More and more people are dying in ambulances outside government hospitals waiting for oxygen beds. Certain antiviral drugs, which are meant to provide relief for severe COVID-19 patients, are available to only a handful of people.

The present wave of COVID-19 struck Tamil Nadu much after many other states saw dire healthcare failures, giving the state some weeks to prepare for the surge and peak. Yet, Tamil Nadu has reached a situation where people are dying for lack of healthcare.

The steady increase in cases began in late March and picked up pace in April. This crucial time was the post-poll interim government period, when no party was in power in the state.

With the new government in place, even as the state preps up to fight the pressure on the health system, it is a fact that the state is at the mercy of the Centre for oxygen and antiviral drugs.

GOVERNMENT MEASURES

The state recorded 28,978 new cases on May 10, taking the active case count in the state to 1,53,389. Exactly a week ago, the daily tally was 20,952 and the active cases were 1,23,258.

The health system was already under a lot of pressure a week ago, there were complaints of oxygen supply shortage and unavailability of ventilators. With the case infection numbers growing in thousands, those requiring constant medical attention have also gone up, adding up to pressure on hospitals.

To deal with the spiking cases, the newly elected DMK government is seen stretching its limits and adding more oxygen supported beds to government hospitals. A total of 12,500 oxygen beds are being readied across Tamil Nadu, and are said to be made available by May 15.

The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) is completing work on installation of 800 oxygen supported beds in the Chennai Trade Centre to meet the demand for oxygen supported beds.

The state has set up a 24/7 screening centre in Chennai, and has also put together a COVID War Room to monitor available beds, ambulance and oxygen supply.

The government has accepted the proposal to set up more testing centres. There are also talks of establishing 142 oxygen generation plants across Tamil Nadu. A plea to recruit 2,000 doctors, 6,000 staff nurses and 2,000 workers is also being considered by the state.

MEASURES NOT MEETING IMMEDIATE NEEDS

Health experts say that these expansion measures would absorb a portion of the COVID-19 patients requiring medical help, but may still not be sufficient for meeting the immediate needs of the rising number of cases.

Public health expert Dr. Farook Abdullah said “only 3% of those infected by COVID-19 would require to be under medical care or admitted in hospitals, whether to be on steroids, to be put on oxygen support or even to be on ventilators. With the steadily rising cases, people requiring those facilities are going up.”

Indian Medical Association (IMA) Tamil Nadu State Secretary, Dr. A K Ravikumar, told Newsclick “The number of cases is steeply increasing and the demand for oxygen is also increasing along with it. The big hospitals that have oxygen tankers are being refilled by the government, but for the hospitals that rely on cylinders, the government chosen nodal officers have to procure and provide liquid oxygen. The agents are not getting sufficient oxygen, and 60 to 70% of hospitals rely on these agents.”

He further added “It has come to a point where we are saying we cannot admit COVID-19 patients because we do not have resources to treat them. No point in admitting patients if we do not have oxygen to treat them with.”

Regarding Remdesivir usage, he said “it is not a life-saving drug, but if we get neither oxygen nor the drug, we cannot treat patients. Even if the number of hospitals and beds are expanded for Covid-19 treatment, if they do not have oxygen and antiviral drugs to treat the patients what is the point?”

This situation has led to crowding in a few hospitals, where the waiting time is several hours in the scorching May sun until patients receive bed and begin treatment. In the meantime, patients are seen dying.

Sasi, from Chennai, whose parents were infected, said “My father’s oxygen level had dipped below 45, and he had to immediately be put on ventilator. But we couldn’t find one at the moment, and he died. Within the next one hour I got three calls verifying ventilators”. This narrative is being heard more and more by the day.

STATE IS DEPENDENT ON THE CENTRE

Citing the futility of the state government measures, Rajamanickam, a senior activist of the All India People’s Science Network, told Newsclick “The state government is at the mercy of the Central government for oxygen and Remdesivir”.

The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin sought 500 tonnes of oxygen on May 8, and 20,000 vials of the antiviral Remdesivir drug on May 11. The Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare increased the allocation from 220 to 419 tonnes per day as requested. No response is received as yet on Remdesivir.

With the exorbitant demand on medical oxygen, the nodal agents chosen by the government to procure and supply liquid oxygen have also hiked up their prices. Dr. Ravikumar said “the government should fix prices on cylinders”.

Remdesivir is said to being sold at Rs 30,000 per vial in the black market.

Rajamanickam, however, stressed the need for universal vaccination. “Vaccination should be prioritised. The previous AIDMK government promised free vaccines for all, don’t know what the present government’s stand is” he said.

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