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Tampa Looks At Long-Term Water Treatment Solutions As A Liquid Oxygen Shortage Persists

Tampa water treatment facility
City of Tampa
City of Tampa

The city has not determined what other methods it will use to disinfect water and will continue using chlorine in the meantime. 

A liquid oxygen shortage due to demand from COVID-19 patients is still affecting Tampa’s water treatment system, despite a steady decline in hospitalizations from the virus.

Without an understanding of when supplies will increase, the Tampa Water Department is starting to look for long-term solutions, said spokeswoman Sonia Quiñones.

“We are working with our regulatory partners to figure out, OK, what are our options?” Quiñones said. “If we get to a point where chlorine isn’t going to be enough for us, what are our options?”

In the meantime, the city will continue to disinfect its water with chlorine, she said.

Tampa made the switch to chlorine in late August as hospitalizations from COVID-19 swelled and the patients needed oxygen, leading to a supply shortage. Hospitalizations across the state peaked during the week of Aug. 20, with more than 17,000 COVID-19 patients.

After months of record high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the state is seeing the numbers drop. As of Thursday, there were 10,247 people hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state while the number of patients in ICU beds are down to 2,543, compared to 3,743 during the week of Aug. 20.

The drop in hospitalizations, however, has not led to an increase in Tampa's liquid oxygen supply, according to Quiñones. She said the department is still not receiving supplies of liquid oxygen.

“Nothing has significantly changed from when we made the announcement that we were not receiving our liquid oxygen supplies because they were being diverted appropriately over to the hospitals that needed it for COVID patients,” Quiñones said.

Officials don’t know when supplies will return, she said.

“I don't think anybody really knows when that's going to change,” Quiñones. “That's something that unfortunately the water department can’t control.”

Liquid oxygen is a key component in water purification. It’s used to generate ozone, a powerful disinfectant with a short lifespan. The ozone destroys bacteria, viruses and other organisms in the water.

The water department started using chlorine as its primary disinfection method and chloramine, a mix of ammonia and chlorine, as its secondary.

The water is safe for consumption and meets all local, state and federal regulations, Quiñones said.

The city has used chlorine as part of the disinfection process for years.

Quiñones said the switch has been smooth and it hasn’t resulted in any downstream problems.

“The fact that we can't use ozone isn't causing additional problems down the road,” she said. “We're able to be in the same quality that we had before.”

Leda Alvim is the WUSF Rush Family/Health News Florida intern for the fall of 2021.
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