ORLANDO, Fla. — Long before hospitals were using liquid oxygen to help save the lives of COVID-19 patients, Orlando Utilities Commission has relied on the substance to help purify and clean its water.
Liquid oxygen is now in short supply due to a record number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and OUC said its supply is running low. That forced the utility company on Friday to call on its water customers to cut back on their water usage immediately.
OUC provides water service to Orlando residents as well as residents in unincorporated Orange County. That adds up to about 140,000 customers, representing about a half a million people, but does not include those who have reclaimed water.
Company officials said irrigation accounts for about 40% of its consumption and they need to reduce that in the coming days to help conserve its liquid oxygen supply. The first step in doing so is asking water customers to stop watering their lawns, washing their cars, and pressure washing.
Officials said other local utilities may not be impacted by the shortage because they still rely on more chlorine to clean the water.
When OUC retrieves its water from about 30 wells through the Floridan aquifer more than 1,000 feet underground, it’s sent to seven water treatment plants.
Ozone generators then use liquid oxygen to pull out hydrogen sulfide gas, which if not removed, gives the water a brown color and strong rotten egg smell. After that it’s further purified and sent to homes and businesses.
OUC said it receives 10 tanks of liquid oxygen a week for its seven treatment plants, but deliveries slowed significantly a few weeks ago.
OUC said its liquid oxygen supply comes from one local vendor, and the utility has already tapped into its reserves, and they’re down to about 50% of what’s normally used.
The utility company said it has a lower than normal supply of liquid oxygen because it is also being used to help treat COVID-19 patients at local hospitals.
It is a ripple effect that Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said he believes could have been avoided if more people were vaccinated.
“This is a purely voluntary pandemic at this point, you can opt-out by getting vaccinated or you can remain in by not getting vaccinated and our hospitals are full, so this is another clarion call to get vaccinated,” Dyer said.
Doctors have found that using liquid oxygen helps better treat patients trying to fight the virus.
The record-high surge in COVID-19 patients in local hospitals has led to an increase in the use of liquid oxygen, leading to the shortage at OUC.
In January, as vaccines were starting to roll out and COVID cases were falling John Hopkins issued a memo titled “Potential Solutions to the COVID-19 Oxygen Crisis in the United States.” The paper warned of a shortage of liquid oxygen, which is now happening in Orlando.
Medical leaders said until COVID-19 cases start to fall, the shortage will remain.
“We are using an unprecedented volume and level of oxygen,” said Mary Mayhew with the Florida Hospital Association.
Mayhew said oxygen is critical to treat COVID-19 patients, who can require five to 10 times as much oxygen.
“In our ICUs right now, 50% of our patients are COVID patients and so a dramatic amount of oxygen is being used,” Mayhew said.
Julie Swann, a supply chain expert with N.C. State, said the shortage is a downstream effect of COVID-19 cases, which are still rising.
“During these times of surges that is when you are at the greatest risk of having these cascading effects,” Swann said.
Dyer said in addition to limiting your irrigation usage, the best thing you can do to help with the issue is to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Dyer said large water customers have already been contacted and the city will stop watering at its public facilities, even water fountains.
Orange County Utilities officials said their customers do not need to take conservation efforts at this time.
“We understand that increased demand for liquid oxygen has greatly impacted some water authorities across the state. We are actively monitoring the situation and participating in discussions with Florida’s regional agencies. Although Orange County Utilities customers do not need to take precautions at this time, we will communicate if any additional steps are needed to conserve water,” the county said in a statement.
Watch OUC and Orlando’s full news conference announcing the issue below: