Surging Delta rates are taxing all our systems, but none so much as our healthcare system. COVID-19 hospitalizations are surging, especially in the South, where many ICUs are over capacity mostly with unvaccinated patients. Unfortunately, the influx of Delta-infected patients is causing not just a shortage of beds, but also a shortage of oxygen.
In case you forgot about the hell that was spring of 2020, we had scary oxygen shortages near the beginning of the pandemic — but we never thought we’d have to face this nightmare once we had safe and effective vaccines. In Florida, South Carolina, Texas, and Louisiana, where vaccination rates are low, some hospitals are at risk of running out of oxygen altogether, CNN reported.
Another alarming reality is that the age of individuals getting sick is trending decidedly younger than it was in the pre-vax period. Now, most of the people being hospitalized due to COVID are under 60, and hospitals just can’t keep up with the amount of oxygen that those patients need. “We're seeing the younger patients — 30-, 40-, 50-year-olds — and they're suffering. They're hungry for oxygen,” Ahmed Elhaddad, an intensive care unit doctor in Florida, told CNN. Elhaddad told CNN that the Delta variant is "eating" people's lungs. If that image isn't horror-movie worthy, I'm not sure what is.
The oxygen these patients need is hard to come by, even though most hospitals keep a reserve. Usually, hospitals send out their oxygen tanks to be refilled when they have a limited supply left. But because the oxygen is in such high demand right now, many hospitals are having to use almost all of it (including their reserve) before getting their refill, according to CNN. That’s a pretty slim buffer zone when you’re talking about the air we need to breathe. Hospitals are in such dire straits that they’re borrowing liquid oxygen from rocket launch pads.
Why are we facing this terrible — and preventable — dilemma? Well, obviously there are a number of factors, like the fact that we haven’t had time to replenish oxygen since the first wave of COVID-19, but the biggest factor is unvaccinated people. Elhaddad told CNN that he doesn’t have a single vaccinated patient in his ICU, so even though vaccinated people can contract Delta and get sick, they aren’t the ones using the supply of oxygen. “The vaccine is preventing death,” Elhaddad told CNN, and importantly, he added, “It's preventing patients from coming to the ICU.”