askST: What does oxygen supplementation for Covid-19 patients involve?

SINGAPORE – As the nation moves towards living with endemic Covid-19, the Government’s focus is shifting away from the number of daily cases to the condition of such cases – including those who require supplementary oxygen.

The Straits Times spoke to Professor Dale Fisher, senior consultant at the National University Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases and professor of medicine at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, to find out more about what this means.

Q: What does oxygen supplementation involve?

A: Blood oxygen levels can be routinely measured in patients with a simple clip device placed on the finger.

When these levels are low, patients need to be given oxygen at a higher level than is in the air. This is done using nasal prongs or an oxygen mask, which helps to provide them with the extra oxygen.

Q: There are many photos of hospitals around the world with patients lying in beds next to oxygen tanks. Is that how Singapore does it?

A: You will only see tanks in less sophisticated hospital settings or in makeshift facilities. In Singapore, we have oxygen tanks when transferring patients or in temporary overflow structures used during a surge in patients at hospitals.

In most hospital settings here, the tanks are centralised and the oxygen goes to patients via permanent outlets in the walls.

Q: Is oxygen supplementation the same as being on a ventilator?

A: No, a ventilator is needed when oxygen levels remain low even with an oxygen mask and the oxygen flow turned up to the maximum.

Mechanical ventilation involves putting a tube down the patient’s airway, with the patient under heavy sedation.

The tube is connected to a machine known as a ventilator which pushes oxygen into the lungs in order to create a higher blood oxygen level.

Q: How long do people usually stay on oxygen supplementation?

A: This duration varies widely. Those with moderate pneumonia as a result of Covid-19 may be on it for a day or two, but those who have a severe form of the disease – such as people in the ICU – can be on this treatment for weeks.


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