At a time when horrific tales of oxygen shortage dominate headlines across the country, the state of Tamil Nadu is yet to report any major deficiencies in the essential product. This, say government officials, is a result of the capacity building that took place over the last year to improve distribution and storage capacity of medical oxygen.
Currently, Tamil Nadu has the capacity to produce 400 Metric Tonnes (MT) of medical oxygen per day and almost all the production is by private companies. The state currently has a daily demand for 240 MT of medical oxygen. The state also has a storage capacity of 1200 MTs per day and the excess medical oxygen is being stored in many facilities across the state.
The private companies from whom medical oxygen is being sourced primarily includes - INOX Air Products Private Limited, Praxair India private limited and JSW Steels.
Inox has a big plant in Sriperumbudur and a smaller one in Salem. The Sriperumbudur plant produces 140 MT of liquid oxygen per day and stores and transports it. The Salem plant largely produces industrial oxygen and according to sources in the government has asked for time to start producing more liquid oxygen.
The liquid medical oxygen has to be vaporised to a compressed gas before it is administered to the patient. Though Inox produces 140 MT of liquid oxygen per day, its plant at Manali in Chennai can compress and fill only 11.5 MT per day.
Other than this, the Inox plant in Kerala’s Kanjikode - near the Tamil Nadu border- also supplies oxygen to hospitals in Tamil Nadu.
“We supply an average of 55-60 metric tonnes of liquid medical oxygen everyday to Tamil Nadu. This goes to government hospitals in Madurai, Coimbatore and other districts. We do this through dealers, from Coimbatore etc, who make the booking," says a plant manager from INOX Kerala. "This quantity is based on current demand from the state. If the demand increases, we will have to look at our storage capacity and other aspects and tweak allocations," he adds.
Meanwhile, JSW says it has been ramping up oxygen production across the country to meet rising demands. Though the company was not willing to share details on how much liquid oxygen they produce per day in Tamil Nadu, it can be estimated that it is less than 100 MT. This comes from their small steel plant in Salem district. Praxair too is a common supplier, which has also been roped in by the Kerala government.
In addition to these suppliers, according to the Health department, Tamil Nadu also has other private company operated plants in Thanjavur and Coimbatore. TN officials also say that almost 150 MT liquid oxygen is produced in Puducherry by private companies and this can be diverted to Tamil Nadu during a crisis.
Vedanta's Sterlite copper in Thoothukudi district which was closed down due to violation of environmental norms has also offered to supply 1,050 tonnes of liquefied medical oxygen if allowed to run those units, by the state government.
Over the last year, the Tamil Nadu health department meticulously planned and executed a large scale ramping of its storage capacities. “Increasing production at a short span of time looked difficult, the other course of action was to increase storage so that we have enough for an emergency. This is why the state focused on increasing storage,” a bureaucrat told TNM.
Led by Dr. P Umanath IAS, Managing director of the Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation, the health department managed to increase the state's storage facilities from 346 MT to 882 MT.
While external storage was being improved, the department also worked on making hospitals independent and better equipped to handle a deluge of cases. In Chennai, the Rajiv Gandhi government general hospital, Omandurar and Stanley hospitals saw an increase in storage capacity. Similar exercises were also carried across other districts.
"However with regard to oxygen it is an activity to be monitored 24*7. While the state can be satisfied with the work done till now, we have to keep planning for the peaks," Health secretary J Radhakrishnan tells TNM.
Sources in the health department predict that the demand for oxygen is only bound to increase in the coming weeks and peak consumption could rise upto 450 MT. In such a scenario, they will be relying on their storage facilities first. Puducherry meanwhile is producing 150 MT of oxygen which can also be diverted to Tamil Nadu if necessary.
But while Tamil Nadu currently does possess the ability to meet demands for liquidated medical oxygen, health authorities fear that as cases rise, they are likely to face shortage. Epidemiologists in the National Institute of Epidemiology (NIE) in Chennai have projected the fresh daily cases of COVID-19 in Chennai to touch 19,000 by May 15, if the infection rate in the city does not decrease. The state is further diverting 80 MT of medical oxygen to Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, a matter that the government has taken up with the Centre on Sunday. Of this 10 MT is being diverted to Andhra Pradesh and 70 MT to Telangana.
Tamil Nadu reported 13,776 additional COVID-19 cases on Friday and the state’s active cases is inching towards the one lakh cases. 78 deaths were reported on Friday and the state’s cumulative death toll is now 13,395.
The state is currently estimating that during a peak, they would require 450 MT of medical oxygen every day. Storing, transporting and distributing this large amount is a challenge that the state is getting ready for.
The union government recently made the state divert 45 MT of oxygen from a plant in Chennai to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, a matter which was not taken lightly by the health department.
While the government has decided to take up this diversion- without prior intimation- with the Centre and emphasised that the state's needs come first, they maintain that providing oxygen to neighbouring states which are running a deficit will not affect Tamil Nadu's supply immediately.