Too Many Patients, Too Few Ventilators: How U.S. Hospitals Cope With COVID-19

MONDAY, March 30, 2020 (HealthDay News) — Faced with a looming shortage of lifesaving ventilators, U.S. hospitals are scrambling for solutions and planning for the worst.

Intensive care units at besieged hospitals in New York and other cities are taking an “all hands on deck” approach — recruiting doctors from various specialties to help handle the influx of severely ill COVID-19 patients.

They are also finding ways to fill another crucial gap: A limited supply of ventilators, machines that provide breathing support to patients in respiratory distress.

Last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially approved one alternative to standard ventilators: anesthesia machines. The equipment, normally used to put surgery patients under, can be adjusted to provide oxygen to ICU patients.

“Anesthesia machines are ventilators. They’re just a little different,” explained Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM).

It’s the perfect use for the equipment, now sitting idle as elective surgeries are canceled, Kaplan said.

Plus, he added, anesthesia machines are available outside of hospital walls — at freestanding surgery centers, medical schools and pharmaceutical labs.

“We’re leaving no stone unturned,” said Kaplan, a surgical critical care specialist at the University of Pennsylvania and VA Medical Center in Philadelphia.

Currently, the United States has around 200,000 ventilators, the SCCM estimates. Many of those are already in use, or are older, more basic models that hospitals have on hand. The figure also includes the federal government’s emergency stockpile.

Experts have been warning the supply falls far short of the expected demand. At a recent webinar convened by the American Hospital Association, one researcher projected that 960,000 Americans might need a ventilator before the pandemic is over.

In New York state, the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly said hospitals there need at least another 30,000 ventilators. They are bracing for cases to peak within three weeks, when a projected 40,000 ventilators may be needed.

But it’s not only ventilators that are in short supply, Kaplan warned. There are too few health care providers trained in operating them — work that is normally done by ICU doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists with specialized training.

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