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Direct Relief to Boost Global Oxygen Supply Amid Covid-19-Caused Shortages with $5 Million Investment

Hospitals in low-resource settings, faced with deadly waves of the coronavirus, are finding themselves unable to meet skyrocketing oxygen needs. Direct Relief is working to change that.



A worker sorts oxygen cylinders being used for Covid-19 patients at a facility in Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital in Ajmer, Rajasthan. (Photo by Shaukat Ahmed/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As the Covid-19 pandemic causes deadly oxygen shortages worldwide, Direct Relief is committing $5 million to equip healthcare providers in under-resourced communities with dependable, resilient, and efficient oxygen systems to treat patients.

“Limited availability of medical-grade oxygen was a chronic challenge before the Covid pandemic, but it has been a recurring, acute crisis since it’s essential to treat people who become most ill from the virus,” said Thomas Tighe, Direct Relief President and CEO. “That’s why Direct Relief is devoting focused resources to increase availability in the highest-need areas.”

Direct Relief’s commitment adds to more than $15 million invested already by the organization to respond to recurring crises of Covid-19-related oxygen shortages by providing, among other things, more than 33,000 oxygen concentrators reaching healthcare providers in 52 countries — from the U.S. to Brazil, India, Nepal, Yemen, and more.

Investing in Sustainable Oxygen Production

Even before the pandemic, medical-grade oxygen was scarce in much of the world, in part due to cost and the need to transport oxygen cylinders hundreds of miles via cryogenic tankers, from production plants to hospitals, then back for refilling. Pandemic-induced supply chain issues have only exacerbated the problem, especially in countries relying exclusively on imports.

“We’ve seen repeatedly that Covid-19 causes a sudden spike in demand for medical oxygen that completely outpaces the local supply,” said Emergency Response Director Dan Hovey. “No surge capacity exists for oxygen.”

A sustainable alternative to imported oxygen exists in pressure swing adsorption (PSA) plants, which separate oxygen from other gases onsite at hospitals.

Direct Relief has funded permanent oxygen-generating plants at hospitals in several countries to ensure a reliable oxygen supply. The organization is also joining Every Breath Counts, a public-private coalition including UN agencies, businesses, academic institutions, and Build Health International, to build and restore PSA plants in countries such as Dominica, India, Nepal, and Madagascar.

PSA plants can meet the oxygen needs at most facilities; however, in low-resource settings, PSA plants often require repair.

For example, in Nepal last year, as the delta variant swept the country, Dhulikhel Hospital needed 150-200 oxygen cylinders every 24 hours to care for patients in its 136 Covid-19 beds. Its PSA plant was only generating 60 cylinders per day. Staff member Sanil Shrestha described waiting overnight at a local oxygen factory in the hopes of being able to bring more supplies to Dhulikhel’s patients.

With funding from Direct Relief, Build Health International diagnosed the problem and got Dhulikhel’s plant running at full capacity.

To track the estimated need for oxygen need in low & middle-income countries, Direct Relief, in collaboration with Every Breath Counts, developed a map and data dashboard. The tool also displays crowdsourced reports of oxygen plants requiring repair.

“Organizations like Direct Relief have an absolutely critical role to play in preventing oxygen shortages in low-resource settings,” said Leith Greenslade, the coordinator of Every Breath Counts and an expert on oxygen supply shortages. “We need very nimble humanitarian agencies that can almost operate in a parallel universe.”

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