Oxygen supply, businesses booming

By Robin Adams Time of article published Sep 12, 2021

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THE SUPPLY of medical oxygen and oxygen-related equipment has become a lucrative business and a profitable side-hustle for some paramedics.

While the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the Western Cape might be in the rear-view mirror, authorities are worried about the next wave, and have ramped up their their pleas for people to get vaccinated.

More than 600 people with Covid-19 are currently in Western Cape hospitals, either in high care or ICU. Medical oxygen has become a precious commodity during the pandemic and a boon for smaller businesses who have identified a niche market to supply oxygen for people recovering at home.

Nimrod Visagie, owner of Executive Safety Services in Paarden Eiland, said his business has seen a significant increase in oxygen sales over the past few months.

“With the Covid situation, there’s been a big demand from customers for oxygen cylinders and the masks that go with the set.”

Visagie said he charged R250 to refill a standard-sized three-litre oxygen tank. Depending on the patient’s needs, that amount of oxygen could last between one and three hours.

Stefan Michaels, a paramedic from Blue Downs, has three oxygen tanks which he rents to Covid-19 patients in his area, for between R350 to R1 000. Clients have used the tanks until they run out of air.

Michaels said: “It is a lucrative business, but it is also up and down.”

Michaels gets his oxygen supply from vendor Brian Fortune in Blackheath who supplies a private ambulance service. “I get my stock from Air Liquide and I also have two agents working for me,” Fortune said.

Oxygen concentrators are also in high demand. A concentrator is a device which plugs into a wall socket. It extracts nitrogen from a room and gives a purer concentration of oxygen. Entry-level concentrators come with a R6 000 price tag. Some go for as much as R25 000.

Nolan Balie, a paramedic for a private ambulance company in Vredendal, rents out oxygen concentrators for R650 a week. “I’ve got four machines. Currently two are in use,” he said.

Sadiah Bassa, owner of Big Boy Crockery in Lansdowne, saw a gap in the market when her regular catering supply business slowed during lockdown. She bought oxygen concentrators and resold them. “I sold more than 50 and I realised it’s only rich people who can afford it,” Bassa said.

So she bought a few more devices, and with the help of some donors, started a programme called Just Breathe, to help those who needed oxygen and didn’t have the money for it. Bassa currently has 80 concentrators in her inventory.

“Anyone from anywhere who needs it (an oxygen concentrator) can get one from me for free. They just need to bring their IDs, a doctor’s note and proof of address.”

Giovanni de Fraetas from Atlantis had Covid pneumonia. The 35-year-old rented an oxygen machine from a local doctor for R1 150 for a week. An out-of-breath De Fraetas said: “My experience with Covid-19 was a hectic one. My wife and kids gave me the strength to fight. It took me 14 days to recover from this illness. Thanks to the oxygen tank and the meds, I pulled through.”

De Fraetas, who said he “wouldn't wish the coronavirus on anyone”, regretted not getting the jab in time. But he said he would as soon as he was back to full strength.

Mohamed Domingo, 53, from Goodwood spent a month at N1 City hospital with Covid-19. “My oxygen levels dropped dangerously low and I was in ICU for eight days,” he said. Domingo spent another three-and-a-half months recuperating at home. He had an oxygen concentrator and cylinder, which his medical aid paid for. Domingo’s cylinder was a back-up, in case there were electricity blackouts.

Domingo got both his Pfizer shots, but said “one of my lungs is only functioning at 35% after Covid-19”.

Both of these survivors are now encouraging fellow South Africans to get vaccinated.

The Western Cape, up until recently, was the epicentre of the nation's coronavirus cases.

There had been concerns that public hospitals would struggle to meet the demand for oxygen as the Delta variant infected more people.

Dr Keith Cloete, the head of health in the Western Cape, said hospitals in the province had always been well stocked. “We are beyond our third wave peak, and have had sufficient supply of oxygen throughout.”

A private hospital employee, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak to the media, told the Weekend Argus that a 200-bed hospital would normally operate on between 700 and 800kg of oxygen a day. “Now they’re using up to two-and-a-half tons.”

Health department spokesperson Mark van der Heever, said hospitals, and not clinics, were able to provide oxygen to the public.

Afrox is the country’s largest supplier of medical grade oxygen. Spokesperson Nolundi Rawana confirmed the company has increased supplies to Western Cape hospitals in the last two weeks to meet the number of hospital admissions. “It is equivalent to the numbers of people being hospitalised,” she added.

Meanwhile, Western Cape Premier Alan Winde has been monitoring turnout numbers at vaccination sites across the province.

“We need to save lives, and jobs, by getting as many vaccinated before the next wave,” he said. “To address vaccine hesitancy, we are further engaging directly with communities to address concerns, and bringing vaccines to those who may otherwise struggle.”

It is widely known that vaccines help reduce the risk of developing severe Covid-19 and the likelihood of hospitalisation.

Latest figures show that more than 98% of over 60-year-olds in the Western Cape who died from the disease, were unvaccinated.

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