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Dying patients forced to wait 24 hours for oxygen
Staff from the Motherwell health facility, accompanied by dr. Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health, during his visit to this facility. Photo: Lulama Zenzile
A staff member takes medicine to a community member at the gate of the Motherwell health facility. Photo: Lulama Zenzile

A tragic tale of 30 COVID-19 patients in a ward with only 12 oxygen points, which causes patients to wait up to 24 hours for a turn to get much needed oxygen, came to light after the national Minister of Health’s visit to the Eastern Cape.

Doctors at Dora Nginza Hospital in Port Elizabeth therefore have had to make difficult decisions about which of these COVID-19 patients, which at that stage is most often associated with shortness of breath, will receive oxygen and who would not.

This, together with a shortage of staff, as well as too few beds and equipment, apparently has been causing the death rate in the hospital to skyrocket.

Dr Lokuthula Maphalala of the hospital painted a picture of extreme desperation and frustration over the fact that more lives could be saved if “only the basic necessities” were available.

“We do not ask for luxuries, only the basic things. With those, we will be able to achieve so much more.

“The staff are struggling under the circumstances, but they are doing everything they can to make the best of the situation,” she said in her plea to the minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, who concluded his two-day visit to the Eastern Cape on Thursday.

According to Maphalala, the hospital has a mortality rate of almost 100% among COVID-19 patients suffering from diabetes.

She attributed this to the fact that the hospital did not have enough medical equipment, such as monitors, as well as staff.

In other cases, patients in the hospital apparently also died because they fell off makeshift hospital beds.

Owing to the shortage of beds, trauma trolleys without side rails were being used.

Dr. Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health. Photo: Lulam
Dr. Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health. Photo: Lulama Zenzile

In an effort to prevent patients from falling off the trolleys, they are sometimes tied down with bandages.

Discussing the lack of oxygen points and doctors having to make difficult decisions about who gets oxygen and who does not, Maphalala said it had already happened that some patients had to wait longer than 24 hours for oxygen.

Also in the Motherwell health facility, the acting manager told Mkhize that there were only two oxygen points in the consulting rooms, while sometimes four patients needed oxygen at the same time.

Asked about the availability of oxygen points, Mkhize replied that a team would meet on (last) Thursday night to determine how immediate action could be taken. He expected additional oxygen cylinders to be available over the next two days.

Repairs to faulty oxygen points would also provide about 50% additional capacity to some hospitals.

After this, additional infrastructure for new oxygen points would be installed, Mkhize said.

Mkhize also announced that all obstacles and bureaucratic red tape with the appointment of individual staff should be removed so that more staff members could be appointed as soon as possible.

During his visit, a record number of 572 deaths were reported nationwide on Wednesday last week, of which 400 were in the Eastern Cape.

The province had already reported 1 345 deaths by then.

During his visit, Mkhize also slammed the provincial Health MEC, Sindiswa Gomba, and instructed her to report the COVID-19 deaths daily.

He said the delay of even one day was unacceptable.

Gomba said in response that their preliminary investigation indicates that no data on deaths had been reported over the period in question and that an investigation was being conducted into who did not do their job.

Meanwhile, Dr Thobile Mbengashe, Superintendent-General of the Provincial Health Department, told Network24 that doctors evaluated all deaths before a death was officially reported as a Covid-19-related death.

Dr Zweli Mkhize, Minister of Health, and Sindiswa Gomba, MEC for Health in the Eastern Cape, speak to staff members of Dora Nginza hospital. Photo: Lulama Zenzile

He claimed the doctor responsible for the evaluation was overwhelmed and could not pass on the official statistics.

According to Mbengashe, the province would, in future, on the instructions of the minister, report all COVID-19 deaths in hospitals without waiting for the doctors’ evaluation process.

Although Mkhize acknowledged during his visit to the Eastern Cape that there were problems and weaknesses in the province’s health system, he did not believe that the Provincial Health Department should now be placed under administration, but that additional assistance should now be provided through the project management unit (PMU).

Mkhize’s reaction comes after DA MP, Siviwe Gwarube, demanded, in a letter to him last month, that the department, in terms of article 100 (1) of the Constitution, needed to be placed under administration.

Gwarube cited the controversial R10 million ambulance motorcycle project and the alleged inability of the leaders of the Provincial Health Department to cope with the COVID-19 crisis as reasons for the request.

Mkhize said on Thursday that although there was still work to be done, he believed there was still hope for the Health Department to deal with the impending peak of the pandemic.

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