LIMA – Operators of a petroleum-processing plant in the remote Peruvian Amazon region of Loreto are now working feverishly to make a product that has become a matter of life or death there during the COVID-19 crisis: medicinal oxygen.
With overwhelmed hospitals struggling to save patients and regional health authorities clamoring in recent days for that vital resource, oil workers at the Trompeteros plant – operated by Pluspetrol Norte – are rising to the challenge.
Using material and infrastructure that has been out of service since the company halted production on April 18, Trompeteros’ workers are producing medicinal oxygen and transporting it by boat to hospitals in Iquitos, the capital of the northern region of Loreto and the biggest city in the world that is inaccessible by road.
“This pandemic has affected all of us, and it’s been doubly bad in Loreto because it’s a difficult region to access. Only by plane or river. When COVID-19 (an acute, potentially fatal respiratory illness) began to hit hard, we wanted to help. First, we donated biosafety material, but in talking to the regional health director and asking what they needed, they told us that the priority in all cases was oxygen,” Jorge Novoa, Pluspetrol Norte’s community affairs manager, told EFE.
The company was able to respond immediately thanks to the existence of a small, adaptable industrial oxygen plant at the Trompeteros facility, which had been reduced to a skeleton staff of technicians and workers to avoid infections with the novel coronavirus.
“We had a plant in production here that was used for industrial maintenance work, welding, cutting, metal work … We started thinking how to produce medicinal oxygen with an industrial team, and our suppliers told us the equipment just needed to be recalibrated,” Novoa said.
But the technicians needed for this task were lacking and needed to be brought to that facility in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, an operation that was carried out amid the pandemic without endangering the company’s workers or nearby residents.
“It took us 12 days, but finally we make our first shipment on May 9. The fastest way to ship the oxygen is by boat, which takes 16 hours to get to Iquitos. Pressurized tanks cannot travel by air. We’re producing 25 cylinders a day. Fifty cylinders can be taken on one trip; in the meantime, we fill another 50 that we have in supply,” he said.
The result has been very encouraging for the Trompeteros workers, most of whom are originally from Iquitos and have witnessed first-hand the major impact the coronavirus has had on that city.
“Working to provide oxygen for Iquitos and save lives has energized them. Having these people has been a big help … they themselves sent messages to the city, letting them know about the progress being made in producing oxygen,” Novoa said, adding that the company has not put a dollar amount on that effort because the “priority is attending to this urgent need.”
Pluspetrol Norte’s initiative is in addition to other measures carried out by Loreto civil society organizations and the Catholic Church to obtain oxygen supplies for the region.
“No doubt we’re all in this together – the companies and social stakeholders – to see how resources can be used for people’s health and to save lives,” Novoa said.
Even so, the challenge of defeating the coronavirus in Iquitos remains daunting.
Iquitos needs some 800 oxygen cylinders per day, according to city medical officials, yet it is receiving only 100 daily from the national government.
“We only have two plants in the city, which (produce) around 25 cylinders per day. The hospital makes another three or four. The plants installed by the Church will contribute another 25, and private companies donated another plant with the same capacity, but we haven’t even come close to the amount that’s needed. In any case, the fact we’re all joining in is a positive thing,” Novoa said.
Loreto has officially reported 1,933 coronavirus cases and 82 COVID-19-related deaths since the health emergency began more than two months ago.
But doctors, ordinary citizens, social leaders and local media say the pandemic has had a devastating impact on that region, with tens of thousands infected and more than 20 deaths per day in the regional hospital, mainly due to a scarcity of oxygen.