Shortage of intubation drugs threatens Brazil health sector

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A 43-year-old patient suspected of having COVID-19 is transferred from an ambulance into the HRAN public hospital in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

RIO DE JANEIRO – Reports are emerging of Brazilian health workers forced to intubate patients without the aid of sedatives, after weeks of warnings that hospitals and state governments risked running out of critical medicines.

One doctor at the Albert Schweitzer municipal hospital in Rio de Janeiro told the Associated Press that for days health workers diluted sedatives to make their stock last longer. Once it ran out, nurses and doctors had to begin using neuromuscular blockers and tying patients to their beds, the doctor said.

“You relax the muscles and do the procedure easily, but we don’t have sedation,” said the doctor, who agreed to discuss the sensitive situation only if not quoted by name. “Some try to talk, resist. They’re conscious.”

Lack of required medicines is the latest pandemic problem to befall Brazil, which is experiencing a brutal COVID-19 outbreak that has flooded the nation’s intensive care units. The daily death count is averaging about 3,000, accounting for a quarter of deaths globally and making Brazil the epicenter of the pandemic.

“Intubation kits” include anesthetics, sedatives and other medications used to put severely ill patients on ventilators. The press office of Rio city's health secretariat said in an email that occasional shortages at the Albert Schweitzer facility are due to difficulties obtaining supplies on the global market and that “substitutions are made so that there is no damage to the assistance provided.” It didn't comment on the need to tie patients to beds.

The newspaper O Globo on Thursday reported similar ordeals in several other hospitals in the Rio metropolitan region, with people desperately calling other facilities seeking sedatives for their loved ones.

It’s unclear whether the problem seen in Rio remains an isolated case, but others are sounding the alarm about impending shortages.

Sao Paulo state's health secretary, Jean Carlo Gorinchteyn, said at a news conference Wednesday that the situation was dire in the hospitals of Brazil's most-populous state. On Thursday, more than 640 hospitals were on the verge of collapse, with shortages possible within days, officials said.