health worker and oxygen

Hospitals in Manaus run out of oxygen amid coronavirus surge in Brazil

This isn’t the first time that COVID-19 has hit the city particularly hard.

The World

A health worker stands in front of an empty oxygen tank station, the only station at Joventina Dias Hospital, a small clinic in Manaus, Brazil, Jan. 15, 2021. Hospital staff and relatives of COVID-19 patients rushed to provide facilities with oxygen tanks just flown into the city as doctors chose which patients would breathe amid dwindling stocks and an effort to airlift some of them to other states.

Edmar Barros/AP 

A woman walks through a hospital parking lot in Manaus, Brazil, distraught, and pleas for help in a cellphone video she posts on Twitter.

On Thursday, the hospital where she works ran out of oxygen.

“People, I’m asking for your mercy. We are in a deplorable situation,” she says in the recording. She’s not named, but she’s reportedly a hospital psychologist.

“The oxygen has simply run out in an entire unit. We don’t have any oxygen and a lot of people are dying. If you have oxygen available, bring it here to the Urgent Care Unit of the Redenção polyclinic. My God, there are a lot of people dying.”

The video was one of dozens that went viral on Thursday across the country, as hospitals in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, ran out of oxygen — endangering the lives of dozens, according to reports.

Related: Brazil weighs COVID-19 vaccines as its death toll climbs

In another video on social media, posted by a local journalist, retired nursing technician Solange Batista stands on the street in a burgundy face mask.

She says her sister’s blood oxygen level is below 60% and is on a manual respirator to survive. 

“Patients are having to buy oxygen,” she says. “This is neglect. Neglect. In a federal hospital, I have to buy oxygen for a patient? This is impossible.”

Family members of patients with COVID-19 have waited for hours in long lines to purchase oxygen tanks from private distributors in the city. At least one businessman has been jailed for hiding oxygen tanks in order to sell at elevated prices.

Meanwhile, more than 200 patients are being transferred to hospitals in six different states. Health Minister Eduaro Pazuello said Thursday night that along with the lack of oxygen, there were over 480 people on the waitlist for intensive care units throughout the city.

“First, we ran out of ventilators, then beds and finally, and the least expected, oxygen. I believe we were already expecting a high number of patients, but not as we are actually seeing in practice.”

André Basualto, doctor at a private hospital in Manaus

“First, we ran out of ventilators, then beds and finally, and the least expected, oxygen,” said André Basualto, a doctor at a private hospital there. “I believe we were already expecting a high number of patients, but not as we are actually seeing in practice.”

Related: Brazilians flock to the coast during the height of tourist season while coronavirus cases surge

But Basualto says the whole situation could have been avoided. He points to inadequate planning and crowded stores and malls at the end of the year that helped the virus to spread.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been alerting the population about the need for isolation and prevention, the use of masks and social distancing, however what we saw was a disregard by many and denialism regarding the imminent severity of the situation,” he said.

This is not the first time the pandemic has hit Manaus hard. The city was ground zero for COVID-19 in Brazil back in April. The images of coffins being buried in mass graves in the city was a terrifying metaphor for the toll that the coronavirus was taking on the country.

Those mass graves are back.

“I believe we are living our worst moment. Just to give you an idea, yesterday, we buried 176 people just in the city of Manaus. It’s a very serious situation.”

David Almeida, mayor, Manaus

“I believe we are living our worst moment,” Mayor David Almeida told Radio Gaucha earlier this week. “Just to give you an idea, yesterday, we buried 176 people just in the city of Manaus. It’s a very serious situation.”

Related: Black man’s death by security guards in Brazil sparks outrage, protests

Manaus is in a tough spot. First, it’s the only city in the state of Amazonas with ICU units. And that state is huge — roughly four times the size of Germany. This means that logistics and transportation are not easy.

Amid the oxygen shortage, many Brazilians took to social media with the word “lockdown.”

“It is past time for Brazil to have a serious lockdown. And a serious president too,”

Venezuela has responded to the #COVID19 health crisis in #Manaus & says it will help provide oxygen for the city's hospitals. Foreign minister @jaarreaza tweeted last night & said he had spoken w/ the governor of the state of Amazonas. #Brazil

— Michael Fox (@mfox_us) January 15, 2021 ">one person tweeted.

They blame President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters for demanding the end of social restrictions and tighter measures that could have prevented the chaos now unfolding.

Related: Bolsonaro loses big in Brazil’s local elections

Such measures were set to be in place in late 2020 before state Gov. Wilson Lima rolled them back under pressure from the business community. Lima has now suspended public transportation and instituted an overnight curfew. He has also requested air support from the United States to help ship oxygen tanks from elsewhere around Brazil.

The Brazilian military says it has already shipped 8 tons of hospital supplies and is preparing to send more.

Venezuela, which shares a border with the state of Amazonas, has also promised to send in oxygen.

The spike in cases in Manaus comes as the region enters its rainy flu season.

For cardiologist Marcio Bittencourt, Manaus is being hit by a perfect storm.

“On top of everything you have the seasonal period of greater respiratory infections, which comes with the rainy season that is beginning now in January,” Bittencourt said. “We have a new mutation of the virus with a new variant that apparently is more infectious. And we have a clear problem of structural logistics and administration, which makes the situation ever more critical.”