States struggle to sustain oxygen supply as daily COVID count nears 3 lakh; MP, Bihar, Chhattisgarh announce free vaccination for all above 18

·7-min read

New Delhi, Apr 21 (PTI) As India saw another record high of 2,95,041 new COVID cases and 2023 deaths, the oxygen crisis precipitated by the second wave which has left tens of thousands hospitalised appeared to intensify with complaints of shortage from several states, including Maharashtra where tragedy struck when 24 patients on ventilator support suffocated to death due to leakage in an oxygen storage tank.

On the vaccination front, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Chhattisgarh were the latest to announce free COVID vaccination for all aged above 18 years, after Uttar Pradesh and Assam made a similar decision, and officials presented data to assert that the vaccines reduce the risk of infection and prevent death and severe infection.

At a press conference, NITI Aayog member (Health) Dr V K Paul appealed to the states, hospitals and nursing homes to ensure rational use of oxygen as it was 'life-saving' drug for the coronavirus infected patients.

Noting that 7,500 MT of oxygen was being produced in the country per day and 6,600 MT is being allocated to states for medical purposes, the Centre said the Union government and state governments need to work together and respond promptly to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The Centre's response came as Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Maharashtra indulged in a blame game and squabbled over oxygen distribution while demanding an increase in their quota.

On Wednesday, several hospitals in the national capital like Sir Ganga Ram City Hospital, St Stephen's Hospital and Holy Family Hospital in Okhla said they only had oxygen for two to five hours. Other hospitals too had been facing a depleting stock for the last few days.

Later in the evening, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who had claimed a 'serious oxygen crisis', said that Delhi's oxygen quota has been increased and thanked the Centre.

Deputy Chief Minister Sisodia accused the Haryana government of blocking medical oxygen supply to Delhi, but the Haryana government vehemently refuted the allegations.

Haryana health minister Anil Vij said given the increased demand for oxygen due to a surge in coronavirus cases, his state can spare the supply for others only after meeting its demand.

He alleged that a tanker carrying medical oxygen for COVID patients in hospitals, which was going from Panipat to Faridabad, was ''looted'' by the Delhi government and said all oxygen tankers will now move with a police escort.

In Maharashtra, which has the highest number of cases, 24 patients on ventilator support at the Dr Zakir Husain Hospital in Nashik suffocated to death when their oxygen supply stopped suddenly because of a malfunction in the main storage.

The government will probe if the tragedy was due to negligence, Maharashtra Health Minister Rajesh Tope said.

Nashik was the worst-hit city in the country in terms of cases per million residents, according to the Union health ministry's data compiled between March 16 and April 15 from major cities.

Tope had on Tuesday said the state was 'managing with 1,550 metric tonnes of oxygen' per day at present and is going to buy oxygen generators, besides using thermal power plants for oxygen production.

In Latur, relatives of COVID-19 patients took to the streets on after a private hospital claimed a shortage of oxygen.

Last week, at least six COVID-19 patients died in the ICU of a government hospital in Madhya Pradesh's Shahdol allegedly due to low pressure in the medical oxygen supply.

Expressing concern over the situation, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said, 'India is among the largest producing countries in the field of oxygen, medicine and vaccine production. Yet deaths are occurring due to lack of oxygen and medicines in the country, which is unfortunate.' Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh wrote to Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, seeking a daily allocation of at least 120 metric tonnes (MT) of oxygen for the state.

The Tamil Nadu government said it would take up with the Centre, diversion of about 45 metric tonnes of medical oxygen from a city plant to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, even as it asserted that the state had adequate stocks of oxygen.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath directed the officials to install GPS devices on oxygen tankers and provide adequate security to oxygen plants.

The country was struggling to sustain the medical oxygen supply lines as the active cases crossed the 21-lakh mark with the 2,95,041 fresh infections in a span of 24 hours, pushing India's total tally of COVID-19 cases to 1,56,16,130.

The death toll increased to 1,82,553 as daily fatalities crossed 2,000 for the first time, according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Wednesday morning.

Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Rajasthan are among 10 states that account for over 76 per cent of the new cases registered in the country.

Assuring that the government was working with speed and sensitivity to meet the increasing demand of oxygen, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in his address to the nation on Tuesday night called upon all stakeholders, including the pharmaceutical industry, to deal collectively with the immediate challenge of the shortage of oxygen cylinders.

The railways said on Wednesday it will run its second Oxygen Express to Uttar Pradesh after a request was received from the state government.

The railways also said that it had received a similar request from Madhya Pradesh.

The Maharashtra government too had written to the railways to explore whether liquid medical oxygen tankers could be moved by the rail network.

In Delhi, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said, 'We are producing 7,500 metric tonnes of oxygen per day of which 6,600 metric tonnes is being allocated to the states for medical purposes.' 'Presently, we have issued instructions that, leaving a few industries, the supply of industries will be restricted so that more and more oxygen can be made available for medical use,' he said.

Bhushan said that a 24x7 control room has been set up where the state governments can tell the problems they are facing if their truck is stuck or the movement is getting hindered.

'When you deal with such a huge challenge, such a big pandemic and multiple stakeholders, then at times there is panic and confusion and the onus and responsibility is on the Union government and state governments to work together and respond promptly so these challenges are addressed,' Bhushan said.

The officials said they are also evaluating applications from suppliers abroad for import of oxygen.

The Centre has floated a tender for import of 50,000 MT of medical oxygen and a pre-bidding meeting was held yesterday, according to official sources.

Also on Wednesday, the Delhi High Court directed the Centre to supply oxygen to hospitals for COVID-19 patients by whatever means required, saying if necessary, the entire production of oxygen from industries including steel and petroleum should be diverted for medical usage.

Addressing a press conference, ICMR Director General Balram Bhargava said 0.04 per cent of 17,37,178 individuals, who received the second dose of Covaxin, were positive for COVID-19, while 0.03 per cent of 1,57,32,754 people, who took the second dose of Covishield, contracted the infection.

Bhargava who presented the data said vaccines reduce the risk of infection and prevent death and severe infection.

The Centre has opened up COVID-19 vaccination to all citizens over 18 years of age from May 1.

Meanwhile, the Goa government announced a 10-day-long night curfew in the state effective from Wednesday and imposed curbs on restaurants, cinema halls and casinos in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases.

Several other states have already imposed lockdown-like restrictions. PTI TEAM PLB GVS SUN VSD ND SKV HMP RT RT RT RT