As hospital treatment gets expensive, many are stocking oxygen cylinders at home preparing for delays in getting treatment during an emergency.

Two workers at an Oxygen refilling plant in HyderabadOxy Vision medical services in Hyderabad
news Coronavirus Tuesday, April 20, 2021 - 19:53

In November 2020, when Manoj Kumar’s mother fell ill due to COVID-19 he had to run pillar to post in search of an oxygen cylinder. “I was desperate, and finally managed to find one cylinder. I paid Rs 5,000 as deposit but didn’t return the cylinder after my mother recovered,” says the dairy farm worker from Hyderabad’s Nampally.

On Monday, Manoj gave the oxygen cylinder to his best friend, Naveen Reddy, whose father had tested positive for coronavirus and was having breathing difficulty. “When I struggled to get the cylinder, I knew that the COVID-19 situation could get worse and that someone I care for will need it. So I held on to the cylinder,” he adds.

TNM caught up with both men as they waited at Oxy-Vision Medical Services, an oxygen refilling plant at Jalpally in the city. A steady flow of tempos, autorickshaws and ambulances carrying empty cylinders arrives at this remote facility, which, according to the manager, now operates 24 hours. More vehicles with empty cylinders await their turn outside the facility gates.

According to activists, the refilling plant is one of the only two places in the city where those who have managed to procure an oxygen cylinder can get it refilled.

Naveen, who works in the catering industry, has chosen to treat his father at home. He has with him an oxygen regulator used for medical purposes that was procured from Koti for Rs 1,700. He is yet to figure out how to use the device. “The hospitals are charging Rs 5 lakh for four days’ treatment. From where do I get such money? My father’s oxygen saturation level is low and so I’m stocking oxygen as a precaution. If there’s an emergency, I will rush him to the hospital and the cylinder can be plugged in until he receives help,” he adds.

The kin of COVID-19 patients waiting for their turn to refill oxygen cylinders say they intend to visit the hospital only in case of an emergency. “The doctor advised us to visit the hospital only if the oxygen saturation level drops beyond a certain point,” said Ali, a 16-year-old who had arrived in an autorickshaw with his cousin to refill two of their oxygen cylinders. The duo pleads with the facility manager to expedite the refilling process, but are told that the process could take up to 3 to 4 hours. “Bhai!! It’s urgent, my aunt is gasping for air,” says Ali to the manager, who is unmoved.

“You will have to wait for 2 hours and then another one hour and 15 minutes to get your cylinders refilled,” says Munafir, the facility manager, to Ali.

“It’s important that I don’t get emotional,” Munafir tells this reporter. “Over 300 people walk in daily to get cylinders refilled. This trend has been going on for the past one week. Both my phone numbers are public and am getting thousands of calls. I keep telling people not to come, but many still come and we help them. Our facility has a licence only to provide oxygen refilling for hospitals. We aren’t supposed to do oxygen refilling in retail. These cylinders aren’t supposed to be at homes of the public, they are explosive materials,” the facility manager says.

The plant can refill up to 70 cylinders at a time but the process could take one hour and 15 minutes. “We have to give the system a break of 30 minutes before we can load and refill another 70 cylinders. But people don’t understand this. For everyone their need is urgent. Some fight with us over the delay. People are desperate,” he adds.

The firm charges Rs 1,000 for 46-litre cylinders and Rs 500 for 10 litres and makes a profit of Rs 70 per cylinder for refilling.

“People accuse us of trying to make money from the situation, but operating the facility 24 hours has increased our operational costs. We have hired more workers and consume more power. We have also had to hire bouncers to manage the crowds,” says Munafir.

The Hyderabad police in July 2020 had arrested a man for allegedly selling Oxygen cylinders without a valid licence and selling cylinders in the black market.

Speaking to TNM, an official with the Drug Control Administration (DCA) said the possession of medical Oxygen cylinders without a licence from the DCA is illegal, the refilling of Oxygen cylinders brought by though without a licence is also illegal, "But we are being lenient considering the situation. The possession of an oxygen cylinder without a licence amounts to hoarding. The licence is only for selling the cylinders to hospitals (Form 21 and Form 21 (b)) and the hospital authorities have to show their licence to get the cylinder refilled," the officer added.

The rush at the refilling plant in the past few days even led to a scuffle between the plant workers and kin of COVID-19 patients. A team of police is now camped in front of the gates for better crowd management.

Siddique, an activist from Old City, says he has 67 oxygen cylinders and three portable ventilators that he has been delivering to those in need since the start of the pandemic in 2020. “They keep the cylinder for four days and return it. We refill and give it to the next person who needs it,” he says, but adds that since the second week of April getting the cylinders refilled has become increasingly difficult.

“When we went to an oxygen refilling plant at Suchitra Junction, the token they gave us was numbered 3,733. They asked us to come the next day evening. There is too much rush and it’s only going to get worse,” he adds.

As of Tuesday, all the 67 cylinders with Siddique are either depleted or in use with COVID-19 patients who are being treated at home. “There are not enough beds at hospitals, so people are getting treated at home. We have another 15 people seeking cylinders but are forced to turn them away,” the activist says.

Munafir, on the other hand, says these oxygen cylinders should be used only at hospitals. “There aren’t enough of these cylinders being manufactured to meet public demand. They are not manufactured keeping public consumption in mind,” he says. “In the past few weeks, a lot of private hospitals have also approached us for oxygen supply. My concern now is whether the steady supply of liquid oxygen will also get affected due to the demand. We have a capacity of 1,000 litres and we are adding another 500-litre capacity because of the demand,” he adds.

Oxygen refilling plants like Oxy-Vision procure liquid oxygen from producers like Ellenbarrie Industrial Gases Ltd and Inox Air. The Telangana State Drug Control Administration told the Times of India on Monday that efforts have been made to procure 1,600 tonnes of liquid oxygen from Karnataka, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh and dispatch it to suppliers in Telangana.

The Hyderabad police in July 2020 had arrested a man for allegedly selling Oxygen cylinders without a valid licence and selling cylinders in the black market.

Speaking to TNM, an official with the Drug Control Administration (DCA) said the possession of medical Oxygen cylinders without a licence from the DCA is illegal, the refilling of Oxygen cylinders brought by though without a licence is also illegal, "But we are being a little lenient considering the situation. The possession of an oxygen cylinder without a licence amounts to hoarding. The licence is only for selling the cylinders to hospitals (Form 21 and Form 21 (b)) and the hospital authorities have to show their licence to get the cylinder refilled," the officer added.

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