Some people who get COVID-19 will need to rely on this machine to stay alive.

By Claire Gillespie
Updated March 24, 2020
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To date, more than 40,000 cases of coronavirus have been diagnosed in the US and at least 488 people have died. But as the number of cases surges in the coming days, experts are warning of a serious problem: a lack of ventilators for patients who need them to stay alive.

The Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) estimates that at least 950,000 coronavirus patients in the US could require ventilators. Yet the nations’ hospitals only have 160,000 of these machines between them, per the SCCM. 

So what exactly is a ventilator, any why are they so desperately needed right now?

A ventilator (also known as a mechanical ventilator, respirator, or breathing machine) is a life support treatment that helps people breathe when they can’t breathe on their own, says the American Thoracic Society. This machine gets oxygen into the lungs and the body and helps to get rid of carbon dioxide through the lungs. 

A ventilator is connected to the patient through a tube placed into their mouth or nose and inserted into the windpipe (a process known as intubation). In some cases, patients have surgery to have a hole made in their neck, and a tracheostomy or “trach” tube is inserted through the hole to the trachea. The ventilator then blows gas (consisting of air, plus oxygen if required) into the patient’s lungs. 

According to the American Thoracic Society, a ventilator can help a patient by doing all or some of their breathing, and it’s superior to a mask and other devices because it can deliver higher levels of oxygen. It can also provide positive end expiratory pressure (PEEP), which helps hold the lungs open so the air sacs do not collapse. If the patient has a weak cough, the tube in the windpipe also makes it easier to get rid of mucus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said earlier this month that among critically ill patients admitted to intensive care units in China (the first epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak), 47-71% of patients received mechanical ventilation. There's no doubt that as the epicenter shifts to America, ventilators will be crucial to many patients' survival.

“In certain patients with COVID-19, the virus infection causes pneumonia and severe inflammation that cripples the lung’s function,” Harvard-trained internal medicine specialist William Li, MD, tells Health. “In these patients, having a ventilator available to support the patient can make the difference between life and certain death.” 

When treating a patient with COVID-19, a ventilator allows the medical team to support their breathing function. “Even if the lung is failing, a ventilator can provide enough support and buy enough time for the medical team to help the patient overcome the infection, until the point where their own lungs are able to regain function,” says Dr. Li. 

In general, hospitals only have a limited supply of ventilators at any given time. “When there are huge numbers of patients flooding into ICU and they each require a ventilator, most medical centers will not have enough to meet the overwhelming need,” says Dr. Li. “This is a true crisis that cannot be solved without having more ventilators available. Without a ventilator, patients with COVID-19 whose lungs are failing will suffocate and die.”

Right now, more ventilators are on the way to meet the increased demand. President Donald Trump has urged major manufacturers, such as Ford and General Motors, to start making ventilators. And today, Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced the purchase of 1,200 ventilators produced in China to be distributed to hospitals across the country, reported USA Today.  

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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