The Oklahoman

Oklahomans asked to conserve water

Rising hospitaliz­ations lead to request

- Dana Branham and JaNae Williams

A sharp rise in COVID-19 hospitaliz­ations is affecting Oklahomans in an unexpected way: their water supply.

With demand for liquid oxygen up — which hospitals use to help patients breathe and some cities use to treat their water supply — some Oklahoma residents are being asked to cut back on their water usage.

A spokespers­on for Airgas, which supplies liquid oxygen to cities in the area including Oklahoma City, said in a statement that in areas with high COVID-19 hospitaliz­ation rates, the company is seeing a two- to three-fold increase in medical oxygen usage from its existing medical customers above preCOVID volumes. That’s expected to keep increasing, according to Airgas.

“We are monitoring the situation very closely and continue to communicat­e with customers and government authoritie­s to help anticipate needs,” the Airgas spokespers­on said. “In

response to the rising medical oxygen demand associated with COVID-19 treatments, Airgas has mobilized all available resources to meet increasing supply needs for hospital and health care facilities.”

Oklahoma has seen COVID-19 hospitaliz­ations increase dramatical­ly over the last two months. On July 1, 134 people were hospitaliz­ed with COVID-19 across the state, including 39 in intensive-care units.

On Sept. 1, more than 1,500 people were hospitaliz­ed with COVID-19 in Oklahoma, and 441 were in ICU beds. More than 93% of recent COVID-19 hospitaliz­ations in the state are among people who weren’t fully vaccinated.

The surge has stretched hospital capacity to its limits and further exhausted health care workers, who say patients in this surge seem to be getting sicker quicker — often requiring large quantities of oxygen soon after they’re admitted.

Both OU Health and SSM Health St. Anthony said its hospitals were seeing increased demand for oxygen but have been able to keep up with current supply.

Keith Reed, deputy health commission­er, said Thursday that some Oklahoma hospitals have had short-term issues with oxygen supply.

“We had … a couple hospitals that ran a little close on their refill, but the oxygen was available, so they were able to get refilled,” Reed said. “We’ve double-checked on this because we know this would be a very critical issue in Oklahoma, so we watch it very closely, and at this time, we have not identified a shortage of oxygen for the state.”

Last week, the city of Norman asked residents to cut back on water use after Airgas notified the city and several other municipali­ties that the company was seeing a large increase in demand for liquid oxygen.

The city said in a news release that because of rising hospitaliz­ations, hospitals in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas were buying large quantities of oxygen products.

“Hospitals and other healthcare facilities caring for patients in need of essential medical treatments such as high-flow oxygen therapy and ventilator support are receiving priority service from such vendors resulting in a reduction in the amount of oxygen products available to municipal water agencies,” the city said in a statement.

Airgas had similar conversati­ons about increased medical demand for liquid oxygen with Edmond and Oklahoma City.

“We have cut our usage of liquid oxygen by 50% to conserve and that is working right now,” said Casey Moore, director of management services for the city of Edmond.

Liquid oxygen is used for ozone filtration during the water treatment process. The liquid oxygen is converted to ozone, and the process improves the taste and odor of the water, he said.

“Water is still safe without that process and safe to drink,” Moore said. “It’s not something that’s required for safe water.”

The city has not noticed any impact on the taste and odor of the city’s water due to the reduction, he said. As the fall approaches and water sources change and lakes “turn over” potentiall­y affecting water taste and smell, Edmond’s water will continue to be monitored and treatment will be adjusted accordingl­y, Moore said.

Oklahoma City has not seen a reduction in supply from Airgas, according to an email from Malarie Gotcher, acting public informatio­n officer for the city’s utilities department. Like Norman, it also recently issued a reminder about conserving water, though oxygen supply was not mentioned.

“We’re also doing everything possible at the water treatment facilities to minimize the impact to the liquid oxygen demand,” Gotcher said. “We’re continuing to provide clean, safe drinking water for our customers.”

The city of Tulsa told News on 6 that it won’t ask residents to conserve water in response to demand on liquid oxygen, because the city’s water supply doesn’t need to be treated with oxygen.

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