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Coronavirus Surge Drains Brazilian City's Oxygen Supply

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A tragedy is playing out in the city of Manaus in northern Brazil. There is a huge surge of COVID cases there, and oxygen supplies are so scarce that people have died of suffocation in their hospital beds. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Manaus is crying out for help again. In April, the pandemic's first wave overwhelmed the city's hospitals and cemeteries. A second wave has now begun. It's even bigger.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Residents are raising the alarm on social media.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Oxygen supplies have run out, says this woman.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Lots of people are dying. She urges everyone to share her video.

MARCUS VINICIUS LACERDA: The fact now is that hospitals, they can no longer take more patients. I mean, there's no way to receive one single patient anymore.

REEVES: Dr. Marcus Vinicius Lacerda is an infectious disease specialist. He's also a physician in a Manaus hospital. Lacerda, who is himself recovering from COVID, is deeply alarmed by the meltdown in Manaus.

LACERDA: I'm really afraid. I'm seeing lots of people die. People that could have better support in the hospitals, they're not having it, no matter if they have money or not.

REEVES: Manaus is capital of the huge rainforest state of Amazonas. The state governor, Wilson Lima, says people call the Amazon the lungs of the world because it provides the world with oxygen. He says, now we are crying out, asking for help.

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WILSON LIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Today, our people need oxygen, he says. Brazil's air force today began flying in emergency supplies, yet demand for oxygen in Manaus is going to be hard to meet. It's six times higher than usual.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Desperate to save loved ones, some families are buying their own.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: This online video shows people frantically hauling cylinders off a pickup truck, hoisting them onto their backs and running into a hospital. Some hospital staff have resorted to other measures.

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LUIZ CARLOS LIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: That's Luiz Carlos Lima, director of the Getulio Vargas Hospital in Manaus. He's appealing for volunteers to operate manual ventilators to pump air into his patients' lungs. Brazil has the world's second-highest number of recorded COVID deaths. Cases are now soaring. A new strain of the virus was recently traced to the Amazon. Scientists are trying to figure out if this is driving the second wave. To ease pressure on hospitals, COVID patients from Manaus are being flown to other Brazilian states. That's led to worries they'll spread this new strain. Yet physician Dr. Marcus Lacerda says a number of new strains are already out there.

LACERDA: The mutations are all over. I mean, Manaus was not the first place in Brazil to detect such mutations. I'm pretty sure that you already have this type of virus, which is more infective, in the whole country.

REEVES: The chaos in Manaus is triggering anger among Brazilians. Medical professionals especially blame President Jair Bolsonaro for scoffing at the virus and subverting lockdowns and social distancing. Lacerda believes in the end, there's only one solution.

LACERDA: And the name of it is vaccine. If we had started vaccinating in December, we probably would not be seeing what you are seeing today.

REEVES: Brazil's national vaccination program's lagging badly behind, partly thanks to intense political infighting. Officials say it should begin by the end of this month. For many in Manaus, that's too late. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.