A mass transfer of COVID-19 patients in the Amazon’s biggest city is taking place amid a shortage of oxygen tanks, as the UK’s transport secretary says Britain was only aware of a new variant originating from Brazil since Sunday.
Doctors in Manaus, a city of around two million people, chose which patients would breathe amid dwindling stocks as the local health system collapsed, while at least one of the city’s cemeteries asked mourners to line up to enter and bury their dead.
Patients in overloaded hospitals waited in despair as a few oxygen cylinders arrived to save some, but came too late for others.
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It prompted Amazonas state’s government to announce it would transport 235 patients, who depend on oxygen but are not in intensive care units, to five other states and the federal capital, Brasilia.
“I want to thank those governors who are giving us their hand in a human gesture,” Amazonas Governor Wilson Lima said at a news conference on Thursday.
“All of the world looks at us when there is a problem as the Earth’s lungs,” he said, alluding to a common description of the Amazon. “Now we are asking for help. Our people need this oxygen.”
Many other governors and mayors across the country offered help as videos of the situation spread across social media, with distraught relatives of COVID-19 patients in Manaus asking people to buy oxygen for them.
Brazilian vice president Hamilton Mourao tweeted that the country’s air force had taken more than eight tonnes of hospital items into Manaus, including oxygen cylinders, beds and tents.
It comes as official data shows the city’s 14-day death figures is approaching the peak of last year’s first wave of the pandemic as the country deals with its new variant of COVID-19.
A paper published this week indicated the new strain had been circulating in Manaus as of mid-December. The paper said that raised concerns about greater transmissibility or potential for reinfection, although such possibilities remain unproven.
Concerns over the new strain prompted the UK to ban travel from every country in South America, as well as Portugal.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps later announced that Madeira and the Azores would be removed from the travel corridors list from 4am on Friday to try and reduce the spread of the variant.
Speaking to Sky News on Friday, Mr Shapps denied there was a delay in banning flights from South America into the UK after the new variant was discovered.
He said the government moved as soon as it had found the new variant after completing genome sequencing – the process that finds new mutations – and insisted the government acted “extremely quickly”.
Mr Shapps added that it takes a “huge amount of time and science to genome sequence” a variant.
He also insisted the ban on travellers from South America and Portugal was needed to help with COVID vaccine measures in the UK.
He said the move was to combat the new strain of coronavirus found in Brazil, saying: “Scientists aren’t saying that the vaccine won’t work against it.
“But we are at this late stage now, we have got so far – we have got jabs into the arms of three million Brits now – that’s more than France, Spain, Germany, Italy put together, and we do not want to be tripping up at this last moment.”
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