(Eds: Revising death toll) Nashik/Mumbai, Apr 21 (PTI) Twenty-two COVID-19 patients, who were either on ventilator or oxygen support, suffocated to death on Wednesday when their oxygen supply stopped suddenly because of a malfunction in the main storage at a civic-run hospital at Nashik in Maharashtra, officials said.
The incident occurred in the afternoon at Dr Zakir Husain Hospital in Dwarka area of the city.
Confusion prevailed in the evening over the exact number of fatalities in the incident. While District Collector Suraj Mandhare claimed that two more COVID-19 patients at the hospital succumbed in the evening due to the oxygen supply issue, Nashik Divisional Commissioner Radhakrishna Game said late night that the death of these two patients was not linked to the leakage incident.
The Maharashtra government announced a probe by a seven-member committee into the incident and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said that financial assistance of Rs five lakh would be provided to the families of each victim.
The disruption of medical oxygen supply was caused by leakage from a storage plant, officials said.
An official said the incident occurred when oxygen was being filled in one of the tanks from a tanker, which disturbed the supply to the patients who were on ventilators as well as to those dependent on oxygen for breathing.
The Nashik Municipal Corporation (NMC) issued a statement in the evening, in which it said that a total of 157 patients were undergoing treatment in the 150-bed COVID-19 hospital when the incident occurred. Of these, 131 patients were on oxygen support, 15 on ventilator support and 61 were critical.
The NMC said that the deceased were in the age group of 33 to 74 years. While 10 of the victims were women, 12 were men.
Eleven of them were receiving treatment on ventilator beds and as many others on oxygen beds, the civic body said.
'Around 10 am, a socket of the oxygen storage tank broke and the leakage started. When the hospital staff came to know about it, they deployed jumbo cylinders to supply oxygen to the patients and started shifting some of the patients,' an official said.
The leakage was stopped, the tank repaired and the oxygen supply was normalised, he said.
Soon after the incident, people rushed to the hospital hindering rescue operations.
'An oxygen tanker had reached the hospital premises when the leak happened. Technicians who came with that tanker and technicians at the hospital broke open the lock of the tank and closed the valve which prevented the further leakage of oxygen,' he said.
The municipal corporation shifted cylinders from other facilities in the city to help the patients at the hospital after the leak, which was noticed around 12.30 pm, an official said. Hospital officials then contacted municipal commissioner Kailash Jadhav seeking technical help to stop the leakage.
The NMC said in its statement that as the oxygen supply to patients decreased at around 12.30 pm, the hospital administration inspected the tank. In the inspection, leakage was found on the lower side of the tank. As a result, oxygen level in the tank was decreasing rapidly and patients were not getting oxygen with sufficient pressure, it added.
When the incident occurred, four of the patients were shifted to New Bytco Hospital of the NMC and one to a private hospital in the city, it said.
Later, the supply of oxygen to the hospital was regularised by around 2 pm, it said.
Collector Mandhare said a private company looked after the tank maintenance at the hospital and after the leakage, technicians closed the tank valve, which prevented more deaths.
Three days before the tragedy, the Union health ministry's COVID-19 data compiled between March 16 and April 15 from major cities showed Nashik the worst-hit city in the country in terms of cases per million residents.
State Health Minister Rajesh Tope said, 'The liquid oxygen which was filled in the tank has the temperature of around (minus) 180-degree celsius. There is extreme pressure on the walls of the tank which supplies oxygen to patients on ventilator support.' The oxygen level was around 25 per cent in the storage tank at the time of the incident, he said.
Two oxygen tanks were set up at the hospital recently and the maintenance work was given to a private company.
Tope said the committee to probe the incident will be headed by the Nashik divisional commissioner, which will also give recommendations to update existing safety norms to help avoid such incidents in future.
'If anyone is responsible for the deaths, they will face legal action,' the minister said.
The family of each deceased will be given financial assistance of Rs five lakh each from the CM relief fund.
Besides this financial assistance, the kin of the deceased will also get Rs five lakh from the NMC, Tope said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari expressed anguish over the tragedy.
In a statement, CM Thackeray said, 'I do not know how to console the families who lost their members in this accident. Though it is an accident, there will be a thorough probe into it.' Divisional commissioner Game said, 'The oxygen leakage incident claimed the lives of 22 patients. Two other COVID-19 patients from the same hospital died on Wednesday evening, but the death of these two patients is not linked to the oxygen leakage incident. This was made clear by the medical officers and doctors at the hospital.' 'There was a confusion over the cause of the death of these two patients. But later it was found that they were not linked to the incident,' he added.
A video of oxygen purportedly leaking from the storage plant went viral on social media in the morning.
Relatives of the deceased reached the hospital soon after hearing of the incident and are demanding that stringent action be taken against those responsible for the tragedy.
Leela Shelar, who lost her 60-year-old mother in the tragedy was inconsolable. 'My mother was admitted on Tuesday and put on ventilator support,' she said.
Shelar said as her mother complained of difficulty in breathing, she had requested the nursing staff to help, but they didn't pay heed.
'I didn't admit my mother here to die like this,' she said while fighting back her tears. PTI ND COR DC NSK KRK VT NP NP