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Air Liquide in South Africa Natasha Naidoo

Air Liquide’s VitalAire South Africa steps up to support South African Healthcare during COVID-19 pandemic.

Newly appointed VitalAire Managing Director, Natasha Naidoo, extends team capacity to ensure life-saving supplies for patients.

Natasha Naidoo had just stepped into the role of Managing Director of VitalAire when she was confronted with the demands of managing business unusual as the COVID-19 pandemic struck South Africa.

Within weeks, Naidoo and her team had pivoted the business to step up support for patients across the country by supplying oxygen concentrators and cylinders to local hospitals, to the emergency field hospital at Nasrec, Johannesburg and for transport in ambulances.

The need for VitalAire to step in the national response to the COVID -19 crisis had soon been identified during the interactions Air Liquide had with officials and hospital Groups when working together on how to best prepare the response from a medical oxygen standpoint.

While our subsidiary serving hospitals has been focusing on upgrading oxygen installations in numerous hospitals in order to allow an increase in consumption up to 5 times the normal pre-COVID demand, it was soon identified that an important lever in the management of the response would be the ability of the system to liberate beds by allowing early discharge of Covid-19 patients to home or step down facilities, and under oxygen therapy through concentrators.

Before her appointment as Managing Director in February 2020, Naidoo had been part of the VitalAire South Africa team for six years, having transitioned from Marketing and Business Development Manager through to Director - so she knew the ropes. She also knew she could count on her team to go the extra mile to use VitalAire’s capabilities to benefit South African Healthcare on a broader scale. The entire team at VitalAire is passionate about vulnerable lives, and knew their work could soon have to support more than the thousands of patients who depend on them, but potentially also many more who would need oxygen in their treatment for COVID-19. “The spirit within VitalAire is that we are all committed to serving patients and the patients’ family. Ultimately, it’s all about patient care,” says Naidoo. “The pandemic came as a shock to everyone, particularly as we were used to working closely in the office – particularly in the Call Centre. We quickly put measures in place to take care of the safety of our employees, to prioritise our core business and to ensure no disruption in services - at the same time putting processes and safe working protocols in place to provide for our COVID-19 response,” says Naidoo. “Ahead of the hard-lockdown, business continuity plans were put in place to continue working safely - with most office staff working from home and field workers limiting their interactions with colleagues, while dealing with patients safely under COVID-19 specific protocols using the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment .”

Supporting local hospitals

Amid concerns about South Africa’s ability to provide oxygen for the patients who would need it, VitalAire engaged with private- and public sector officials to offer support. “Because of limitations in the hospitals on the number of beds and wall points for oxygen, we have distributed oxygen concentrators for use in stable and recovering patients,” says Naidoo.

A number of Netcare hospitals have been supplied with equipment, and the Public Sector Field Hospital at Nasrec has received 50 devices .

Supplying these devices was a challenge - with a surge in demand, there is a global shortage. There were also bottlenecks in air freighting, as the number of flights into South Africa had been dramatically reduced.

Naidoo says: “With our swift procurement capabilities, we secured over 2,000 oxygen concentrators on the procurement platform of Air Liquide in Europe. There was a worldwide bottleneck, but we are now shipping these concentrators into South Africa in batches, and plan to secure a further 1,000 in future. At VitalAire the entire supply chain is done internally - therefore, our operations infrastructure is very robust. This robust operational infrastructure allowed us to supply 450 concentrators to Netcare Group Hospitals in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal in under a week from the date of order”

“There were a lot of long evenings and a lot of coordination, but we have a strongly collaborative team, so we succeeded,” says Naidoo.

Stepping up patient support

“Key personnel are the nurses who deliver services in the field, so we have sourced stand-in or contract nurses and drivers, and now have a database of stand-in resources who can help if someone falls ill or needs to be quarantined,” says Naidoo. “Our field nurses are trained and well-versed on COVID-19 protocols, and they have already started delivering to a few COVID-19 patients at their homes.”

The lockdown situation was worsened by intermittent load-shedding, which caused major anxiety for patients dependent on concentrators at home. This meant increased call volumes to our Call Centre Agents and a need to prioritise care for a number of critical patients.

“We had to think very strategically about how patients, deemed as critical by their physicians, could be serviced first,” says Naidoo. “When the power goes off, they go on to a back-up cylinder, but they will often start panicking. We tried to prioritise patients by ‘risk profiles’ and increase the amount of oxygen provided to them so they wouldn’t feel scared that they might run out of oxygen during load-shedding. Our Call Centre agents would calm and reassure them, and check the availability of oxygen in the cylinder in order to reassure the patients. Based on these protocols, we have been able to provide oxygen to all patients during load-shedding.”

“These Call Centre agents are our COVID-19 heroes too – they are the ones taking the calls and calming patients during this scary time – they have to be empathetic, understanding and listen to patients. They reassure them we will help them, and if there are delays we will also communicate that,” says Naidoo.

Despite working from home in unusual circumstances, the team has maintained its service levels and high team spirit.

Supporting broader healthcare

Naidoo and her team are now working very closely with both the private- and state sector on future support. “We have engaged with the National Treasury on a formalised protocol to service patients at home; and we have given our commitment to support field hospitals or step-down facilities. We have also engaged with numerous medical schemes on our willingness to collaborate; and provide our international experience in supporting stable and recovering COVID-19 patients,” says Naidoo. “We also engage with pulmonologists on their requirements and how we can play a role to alleviate the burden from the healthcare system.”