The Eastern Cape Department of Health has admitted that their acting superintendent-general has misread a letter posted on a medical oxygen WhatsApp group, leading to a mistaken instruction to the provincial treasury to look for other manufacturers to augment supply.
The sole medical oxygen manufacturer for the province, Afrox, through its spokesperson Nolundi Rawana, insisted that there was no shortage of medical-grade oxygen in South Africa. However, Rawana said industrial customers were informed that because of a rapid increase in the demand for medical oxygen there was a need to convert industrial oxygen bulk tankers and cylinders to rapidly expand delivery logistics of medical-grade product.
As a result, the company’s industrial clients were sent a letter informing them that they must liaise with their supply managers and might have to seek alternative supplies.
But Dr Sibongile Zungu, the acting head of the Eastern Cape Department of Health last week told Parliament during a sitting of the Portfolio Committee on Health that the provincial treasury was requested by her Department to approach other suppliers, having received a letter from Afrox saying its capacity to supply oxygen was under strain. Zungu said that Afrox had therefore released the department from parts of its contract barring it from procuring supplies elsewhere.
Zungu told the committee this was “a little bit of a challenge at this point because the other suppliers are also stretched. We have engaged our treasury for this work.”
On Monday, January 18 she said she had no intention of misleading Parliament and had misread the letter by Afrox, that was addressed to its industrial clients but was posted on the provincial department’s WhatsApp group, which was created by the department’s infrastructure directorate to link hospital CEOs to ensure a swift response to oxygen problems.
“It was probably an error on their part for posting the letter in the department’s WhatsApp group,” Eastern Cape Department of Health spokesperson, Sizwe Kupelo said. The letter was titled: Notice of Force Majeure — Use of Interim Gas Suppliers on an Interim Basis. It was addressed “Dear Customer”.
The letter continues to state that “supply challenges” will be compounded from 4 January and “normal supply to industrial customers is likely to be significantly impacted from time to time depending on the regional development of infection rates.”
“She didn’t mislead Parliament or the public,” Kupelo added. “What has happened was when there was an insufficient supply of oxygen in some hospitals. Afrox and the department created a WhatsApp chat group to report shortages promptly. It was in this group that Afrox posted the correspondence and the Department of Health took it as directed at them. However, Afrox has since clarified that the correspondence was only applicable to their industrial clients and not to the Department of Health.
At the time there was a shortage of oxygen cylinders in the central and northern parts of the province. Hospitals like Mthatha regional hospital and Stutterheim Hospital were using more than 150 oxygen cylinders, weighing 9.2kgs each, every two days. As more bulk oxygen tanks were brought online, including for Mthatha, Zungu said the cylinders were being redirected to hospitals without the necessary infrastructure.
Rawana said the letter was only intended for their industrial clients and not for the Department of Health.
“Afrox certainly did not and would not under any circumstances relinquish its responsibilities to supply medical oxygen to hospitals under its contract with the National Treasury,” she said.
She added that Afrox did not and will never issue such a notification to any hospital, nor local or state healthcare authorities requiring medical oxygen.
Zungu was originally sent to the Eastern Cape by the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, as part of a team of experts to address shortcomings in the province’s Covid-19 response in the first few months of the outbreak. As part of her job, she had to address massive shortcomings in the initial ambulance plan of the province as well as human resource issues and the shortage of oxygen infrastructure in the province.
The then superintendent-general of the department, who was in charge of the original Covid-19 response, Dr Thobile Mbengashe, then resigned from the department late last year before his contract had expired and joined Premier Oscar Mabuyane’s office as a consultant in charge of the province’s Covid-19 response.
Zungu said that all tertiary, regional and the Volkswagen field hospitals now have wall-mounted oxygen points and bulk oxygen tanks.
“The monitoring of tank supplies is done by a telemetry on-line system by Afrox,” she added.
She added that they were considering asking the South African Defence Force to assist with driving trucks with oxygen cylinders to the Joe Gqabi District. The district comprises a number of deep rural municipalities in the province and includes towns like Mount Fletcher, Maclear, Lady Grey, Burgersdorp and Qumbu.
The district is currently the only one in the Eastern Cape showing an increase in coronavirus infections. According to the latest update, there are currently 449 active cases in the district with 21 being reported overnight. Eight of the 21 had been confirmed post-mortem. DM/MC
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