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SPECIAL REPORT: Local hospitals take proactive approach to COVID oxygen shortage

CBS 13's April Hettinger investigates patient's oxygen need versus the demand

YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA, KECY) - Oxygen is needed by almost every living organism, but some COVID-infected patients cannot breath it on their own which is why the demand has gone up during major outbreaks.

Most hospitalized COVID patients have long term effects on their lungs and require medical oxygen.

Hal Plemons, director of facilities management at the Yuma Regional Medical Center (YRMC) says when the hospitals are flooded with patients, having enough supply can be difficult.

"Our usage has gone almost tripled," Plemons said. "We’ve gone from refilling our tank once a week, once every seven days to everyday mostly."

The portable oxygen cylinders are used to transport patients within the facility.

Sean Hazlett, director of supply chain services at YRMC says they have also seen a higher demand for oxygen in the last year.

"Before COVID, our demand on average was about 300 to 400 tanks a month we were going through, and it has more than doubled," Hazlett explained. "Now we’re running around 700 to 750 tanks a month that we go through of the full O2 cylinders."

Airgas, a local company that gets supply from San Diego, distills normal air which is about 99% pure oxygen.

"The supplier in the truck brings liquid oxygen and pumps it into our bulk storage tank. The liquid oxygen tank is roughly 300 degrees below zero," Plemons stated. "As the facility uses oxygen, it pulls it out of the bulk tank, goes through a vaporizer which converts it from liquid oxygen into a gas, and then it goes up into the hospital, and it’s used by the patients."

The vaporizer conversion is about a two-hour process.

"When our patient load started to pick up again, we we’re using oxygen faster than we could convert it into a gas from a liquid," Plemons said. "To stop that problem, we went down to the store and got a couple of garden sprayers, just the standard garden sprayers, hooked them up to a garden hose and they’re spraying water on the vaporizers which increases the efficiency of the vaporizer to turn it into a gas and that solved the problem."

Each day, nurses like Elizabeth Lara go patient by patient to assess their need for oxygen.

"Due to the inventory that we do daily and we make sure that that is being reported to supply chain, they are ahead of the game on what is our demand of oxygen," Lara explained.

Once news of the shortage trickled over to Yuma, the supply chain needed to be up and ready.

"As soon as I started hearing about shortages in California and some of the Arizona locations, we proactively put a plan in place to make sure that we have a few extras so that we had some additional stock available, as well as strategizing on additional resources just in case," Hazlett stated.

These are the five to seven pound cylinders that are placed on the hospital bed when transporting a patient within the facility.

The supplier had to lay down some ground rules when the oxygen shortage first hit.

"Our goal is to bring down as many empties as possible. So, I have the supply chain staff going around, collecting the empties to bring them down," Hazlett explained. "Airgas, because of the shortage, they’re doing a one-to-one swap, so they give us one full tank for every empty tank that we provide them."

But, when a patient is stationary in a room, they get their oxygen supply from the wall which comes from the tanks.

If not converted properly, this can lead to other issues.

"If a liquid pulls into the system and pulls into the patient room being that cold, it’s not good. You can’t breathe it," Plemons said. "It also freezes up the piping inside the hospital."

Medical oxygen can be lifesaving for some who have recovered from covid, but there are those patients who will live with permanent side effects.

"We have seen multiple people who have recovered. The only difference is that, you know, they walked in here with no oxygen need of a supplement, and now they’re going home with a supplement of oxygen, which some people do recover," Lara stated. "It does take them months after the leave the hospital, and there has been cases, some people are still on oxygen."

Healthcare workers are the final step in the supply chain, but it wouldn't be possible without the supply crew.

"In supply chain the motto that we have is, or that I have established for our team is ‘filling the hands that heal.’ Without supply chain, the clinical staff would not be able to treat the patients the way they need to, so I think supply chain is very critical to the whole organization because we’ve done everything we can to ensure that we have protective equipment for the staff as well as the necessary clinical supplies needed for patient care," Hazlett said.

Yuma Regional Medical Center said it did not have to go into ration care, but had the supply run out, that may have been a possibility.

Top Stories / Yuma County / Yuma County Coronavirus
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April Hettinger

April was born and raised in San Diego where she loved the beach town and her two dogs, Lexi and Malibu. She decided to trade the beach for the snow and advanced her education at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. After a short 3 ½ years, she earned bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies with minors in Journalism and Spanish but gained memories and friendships she will always remember.

She began her broadcast journalism career through NAZ Today, northern Arizona’s local news station, by covering breaking news, building relationships with the community, learning to produce a newscast and anchoring live. Although she will miss her snowy mountain town, she is excited to further her broadcast career and take on the heat in a great city like Yuma.

She is looking forward to floating down at the Colorado River, riding dirt bikes at the sand dunes, and most importantly, serving the community through local news.

You can send any story ideas her way by emailing april.hettinger@kecytv.com.

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