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Orlando urges residents to conserve water because of surge in covid hospitalizations

Liquid oxygen, used in hospitals and water treatment, is in short supply as more critically ill patients need respiratory therapy.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, shown in June 2016, asked city residents in a statement on Aug. 20, 2021, to reduce water use after a surge of covid-19 hospitalizations led to a shortage of liquid oxygen used in therapy and in water treatment. (Michael Conroy/AP/File)

Orlando officials called on residents Friday to stop watering their lawns and washing their cars for the next two weeks so that supplies of liquid oxygen used in water treatment can be preserved for hospitals grappling with a surge of coronavirus patients.

The region has faced shortages of liquid oxygen as people critically ill with covid-19 stream into hospitals in need of respiratory therapy. The demand has become so high that the city’s water regulator warned that water quality could falter if consumers do not cut back.

“If we are unable to reduce water demand, hospital needs continue and the supply remains limited … water quality may be impacted,” Linda Ferrone, chief customer and marketing officer at the Orlando Utilities Commission, said in a statement. “But, we believe that will not happen if everyone does their part to conserve water.”

The city’s announcement highlights the far-reaching consequences of the spike in hospitalizations being driven by the fast-moving delta variant, which is sickening tens of thousands of people daily in Florida alone. It presents a stark warning to other communities around the country where infections have strained health-care systems and caused shortages of medical supplies not seen since the worst waves of the pandemic.

Florida’s hospitals are treating more than 17,000 patients with covid-19 — with more than 3,550 of those in intensive care, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data. Supplies of liquid oxygen have run low in some places as hospitalizations have risen. Doctors and nurses give oxygen to patients who need help to breathe and to help stave off the damage covid-19 can cause in the lungs.

More than 200 people received their doses at a vaccine drive at Impact Church in Jacksonville on Aug. 8. (Video: The Washington Post)

In Orlando, the city’s water regulator uses liquid oxygen as part of its process for removing foul-smelling hydrogen sulfide from water pumped in from the Lower Floridan Aquifer.

In August, Florida hospitals were struggling to get their hands on oxygen supplies in part because there were few truck drivers available who were qualified to transport it, Bloomberg News reported.

“It’s critical that we continue to work together and each one of us do our part, as we have done throughout this pandemic, to mitigate the impacts the virus continues to have on our community,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said in a statement Friday. “While this is another new challenge, I know that as a community, working together, we can overcome it with the help of our residents and businesses.”

Nicole Ray, a spokeswoman for Orlando Health, a major health-care provider in the region, said Friday that the company’s network of hospitals had an adequate supply of oxygen and didn’t expect the increased demand to have “any impact on patient care.” To help the city, Orlando Health is planning to conserve water across its system, she said.

“These measures will have a minimal impact to the operations of our health system and will be continuously evaluated and adjusted as needed to ensure the best use of our resources according to the needs of our patients,” Ray said in an email. “Our team members and medical staff continue to handle this surge, not unlike a year ago at this same time, in a professional and exemplary way and remain ready to serve the residents of our community.”

Orlando officials said residents and business owners should immediately halt all nonessential work involving water, including watering lawns, washing vehicles and pressure washing until supplies of liquid oxygen have been replenished. They are not asking people to reduce their use of water for cooking, bathing or drinking.

Customers should prepare for the conservation measures to last “at least two weeks,” the utilities commission said in an FAQ, while cautioning that the timeline could change. “This is difficult to determine with certainty because it is tied to the number of covid-19 patients being treated in hospitals with oxygen.”