The retail sector of Trinidad and Tobago has run out of oxygen tanks while COVID-19 cases continue to soar.
Retailers speculate that the current unprecedented demand for portable oxygen has been spurred by the record-breaking increase in cases, persistent rise in deaths, and the projection that the parallel healthcare system may collapse next week.
Across the country, all retailers who Guardian Media spoke to said they were out of stock of portable oxygen.
According to Pharmaco Industries Limited’s Managing Director Stephen Aboud, “We are out of stock of portable oxygen cylinders, and we understand most of our competitors are out of stock.”
TRUIS Medical, a medical supply company that also rents tanks, said its 200 tanks are all rented out.
According to one of the directors of TRUIS Medical Mitral Ramkhelawan, “The problem is not oxygen. We could manufacture unlimited supplies of oxygen. We have the oxygen plant at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex on the compound where we supply oxygen to the hospital directly.”
However, the problem lies in the availability of tanks.
Storing oxygen for medical use requires high-pressurized cylinders, up to 2,000 pressure per square inch (PSI), which is not available locally. According to retailers, Trinidad and Tobago’s lack of tanks have to do with limited foreign exchange.
Ramkhelawan explained, “We are not getting US dollars to pay for them (oxygen tanks). This is a bank problem.”
The director added that this lack of foreign exchange had impacted the procurement of life-saving ventilators, a key piece of equipment in the fight against COVID-19.
TRIUS Medical was able to procure many ventilators from the United States. However, Ramkhelawan said, “Despite getting a letter from the North Central Regional Health Authority, Mr. Davlin Thomas, in support of our paying, for US dollars to pay in the US, nobody could get those ventilators. We got the ventilators, but we have not been able to pay the company. We got money so far for just a few of the ventilators.”
This lack of oxygen tanks has reportedly only affected the retail level. Guardian Media reached out for comment on medical oxygen production at the industrial and commercial level for T&T and beyond from Massy Gas, but no comment was received up to press time.
Soaring COVID-19 cases globally has also led to a shortage of pharmaceuticals, which were already affected by the pandemic due to supply chain issues, according to Stephen Aboud of Pharmaco Industries. He mentioned there could also be a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) products like gloves due to a shortage of raw materials, higher demand, and reduced production capacity.
According to the Ministry of Health, the public health system is more than adequately stocked with oxygen supplies. According to the Minister of Health, an extra 50 per cent supply of oxygen has been held in reserve by their main external supplier.
In addition, two major hospitals can generate, bottle, and distribute oxygen to other facilities within the public sector.
The facilities are the Arima General Hospital and the Point Fortin General Hospital.
The ministry added in a press release, “We reassure the public that our oxygen supply is more than adequate to meet our immediate and future needs.”