Hawaii Struggles With an Oxygen Shortage

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U.S.|Hawaii is facing an oxygen shortage amid a record surge in Covid cases.


Outside the emergency room at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu last week.
Credit...Caleb Jones/Associated Press
  • Sept. 2, 2021, 5:18 a.m. ET

The authorities in Hawaii are struggling to transport tanks of oxygen from the mainland as the state’s hospitals grow increasingly strained by new coronavirus infections.

Medical authorities are asking people to postpone elective surgeries and the state’s 223 I.C.U. beds have dwindled to 16 available, said Hilton R. Raethel, the president and chief executive of the Healthcare Association of Hawaii.

“The most critical point for Hawaii that we’ve experienced during this entire pandemic is right now,” he said.

Since July 1, Hawaii has been battling its highest surge in Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations, with the seven-day average of reported cases reaching 884 on Tuesday, according to a New York Times database. The seven-day hospitalization average peaked at 427 on Monday. Health experts say the surge is driven by the highly contagious Delta variant and low vaccination rates.

Though Hawaii has seen droves of tourists coming to the islands — so many that the state’s governor last week asked them to stay away — Mr. Raethel said that around 95 percent of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated residents, not tourists.

These hospitalized patients are also largely the reason for a huge surge in requests for medical oxygen. The demand is up 250 percent since August began, the association said in a statement. The state authorities turned to the mainland for help, but encountered challenges.

An international shortage has limited the number of liquid oxygen tanks that the state can order, Mr. Raethel said. It also takes up to a month to ship the tanks in boats across the Pacific. (Liquid oxygen is highly flammable and dangerous to transport by plane.)

“If New York runs out of oxygen, you ship it in from New Jersey or put it on a truck,” he said. “Even Alaska can drive it across the border from Canada or Washington.”

The state currently has 10 tanks, Mr. Raethel said, and each carries up to 3,500 gallons of liquid oxygen.

The state authorities have requested assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies as it tries to increase its oxygen supply, the association said.

Mr. Raethel said he believes the state will weather the crisis without running out of oxygen. In addition to canceling elective surgeries, FEMA has approved the purchase of three oxygen generators, the authorities have asked shipping companies to speed up deliveries and the state has identified a few tanks that can carry liquid oxygen instead of other gases.

“Living in Hawaii is wonderful when things are going well,” he said. “But it’s really challenging when you have logistical concerns.”

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