Hospitals fear shortage of ventilators for virus patients

FILE - In this May 25, 2005, file photo, Lovely R. Suanino, a respiratory therapist at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, N.J., demonstrates setting up a ventilator in the intensive care unit of the hospital. U.S. hospitals bracing for a possible onslaught of coronavirus patients with pneumonia and other breathing difficulties could face a critical shortage of mechanical ventilators and health care workers to operate them. (AP Photo/Mike Derer, File)
FILE - In this May 25, 2005, file photo, Lovely R. Suanino, a respiratory therapist at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark, N.J., demonstrates setting up a ventilator in the intensive care unit of the hospital. U.S. hospitals bracing for a possible onslaught of coronavirus patients with pneumonia and other breathing difficulties could face a critical shortage of mechanical ventilators and health care workers to operate them. (AP Photo/Mike Derer, File) (AP2005)

U.S. hospitals bracing for a possible onslaught of coronavirus patients with pneumonia and other breathing difficulties could face a critical shortage of mechanical ventilators and health care workers to operate them.

The Society of Critical Care Medicine has projected that 960,000 coronavirus patients in the U.S. may need to be put on ventilators at one point or another during the outbreak.

But the nation has only about 200,000 of the machines, by the organization's estimate, and around half are older models that may not be ideal for the most critically ill patients. Also, many ventilators are already being used by other patients with severe, non-coronavirus ailments.

Hospitals are rushing to rent more ventilators from medical-equipment suppliers. And manufacturers are ramping up production. But whether they can turn out enough of the machines at a time when countries around the world are clamoring for them, too, is unclear.

“The real issue is how to rapidly increase ventilator production when your need exceeds the supply,” Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the critical care society, said Tuesday. “For that I don’t have a very good answer.”

In the most severe cases, the coronavirus damages healthy tissue in the lungs, making it hard for them to deliver oxygen to the blood. Pneumonia can develop, along with a more severe and potentially deadly condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, which can damage other organs.

Ventilators feed oxygen into the lungs of patients with severe respiratory problems through a tube inserted down the throat. The machines are also used routinely to help other hospital patients breathe, namely those undergoing surgery while under general anesthesia.

"If everyone in the country wants to order some, that will get rapidly depleted in a heartbeat," Kaplan said.