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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A shortage of medical-grade oxygen in COVID hotspots like Florida is rippling through the economy, crimping manufacturing and intensifying a shortage of truck drivers.

Why it matters: It’s the latest example of the supply chain chaos that’s developed in the pandemic economy. Oxygen suppliers like Airgas have diverted all their supply to hospitals, leaving industrial customers in a lurch — and potentially putting themselves in legal jeopardy for breaching contracts, sources tell Axios.

The backstory: Liquid oxygen, also known as compressed oxygen, is one of the primary treatments for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. This grade of oxygen is the same as what’s used to purify water, as well as to produce high-quality metals that are in turn sold to manufacturers in fields like aerospace and medical implants.

What’s happening now: Areas of the U.S. south, especially Florida, are the latest to experience the shortage.

  • Cities like Orlando have asked residents to cut back on water usage so they don’t sap the precious oxygen supply, as the Orlando Sentinel recently reported.

In the business world, medical-grade oxygen suppliers that have failed to make good on contracts with industrial customers are effectively "willing to take the legal risk, and putting themselves in jeopardy that their industrial customers come back and say 'hey, we had a contract here, you're breaking that contract,'" says Rich Gottwald of the Compressed Gas Association, a trade group.

  • "But, they've got to do it, because saving lives is more important," he says.

The intrigue: Invoking a "force majeure" — a legal term for unforeseen external circumstances, or an "act of God" — is one way that suppliers can try to justify their decision under the law.

Reality check: Liquid oxygen is difficult to transport long distances. It’s cryogenic, meaning it needs to be kept really, really cold — and it requires specially designed trucks for transport.

  • The northern U.S. isn’t experiencing a shortage at the moment, but because of those limitations, it’s hard to spread the wealth, Gottwald says.

And then there’s the truck driver shortage, which Axios has chronicled this year.

  • “Finding drivers is really difficult,” Gottwald says. "Some companies, like Airgas, are rotating in drivers from [nearby regions] of the country, to be able to service hospitals in the areas that need medical oxygen," he adds.

The bottom line: The economic upheaval caused by the pandemic is far from over.

Go deeper

BP says nearly a third of its U.K. gas stations out of main fuel

A closed petrol station with closed signage on its fuel pumps in North West London, U.K., on Sept. 26. Photo: Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

BP, the second-largest fuel retailer in the U.K., said Sunday that nearly a third of its gas stations have run out of main grades, citing panic buying as a cause for the shortage.

Why it matters: The fuel panic comes amid an international gas price surge, which has forced several energy companies out of business. The country is also experiencing a shortage of truck drivers, per Reuters.

Updated 8 mins ago - World

Reports: Up to 17 U.S. missionaries kidnapped in Haiti

Haitian soldiers guard the public prosecutor's office in Port-au-Prince earlier this month. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Children were among up to 17 American Christian missionaries and their relatives kidnapped by a gang in Haiti on Saturday, the New York Times first reported.

Details: The missionaries had just left an orphanage and were traveling by bus to the airport to "drop off some members" and were due to travel to another destination when the gang struck in Port-au-Prince, Haitian security officials said, per the NYT.

2 hours ago - World

Melbourne, "world's most locked-down city," to lift stay-at-home orders

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews during a news conference in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Melbourne's stay-at-home orders will end five days earlier than planned, officials in Australia's second-biggest city announced Sunday.

Why it matters: The capital of the state of Victoria has had six lockdowns totaling 262 days since March last year. That means Melbourne spent longer under lockdown than "any other city in the world" during the pandemic, Reuters notes.