What ventilators do for COVID-19 patients
Editor’s note: As what we know about COVID-19 evolves, so could the information contained in this story. Find our most recent COVID-19 blog posts here, and learn the latest in COVID-19 prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You may have seen in the news lately that some hospital systems are desperate for more ventilators as they experience surges of COVID-19 patients.
That hasn’t happened at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and we believe we’re well-prepared for a surge, but ventilators are vital pieces of equipment when treating severe cases of COVID-19. Health care systems everywhere are doing their best to help one another stock the supplies they need.
Why ventilators are important for COVID-19 treatment
Ventilators help patients breathe effectively when they can’t on their own for one reason or another. The machines can provide full support, meaning they take over all breathing functions for the person, or they can provide more minimal support, such as for someone who’s recovering and needs just a little extra help breathing.
Ventilators are so important to have ready in hospitals right now because some people with severe COVID-19 symptoms develop a lung syndrome called acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and need help breathing until their lungs have time to heal.
Why some hospitals are trying to get more ventilators
Some hospitals expect (or are currently dealing with) surges of COVID-19 cases, but they don’t typically have to care for so many patients in intensive care situations. Prior to this pandemic, they likely never would have needed so many ventilators, but now they’re trying to prepare — or, in some unfortunate cases, catch up.
Can more than one person be placed on one ventilator?
It’s theoretically possible to use one ventilator for two patients. At the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, we’ve developed a method for doing this if the need arises, but Ohio State appears to have enough ventilator equipment on hand to meet the needs of our patients during a predicted surge of COVID-19 cases.
It’s much safer to use a ventilator for just one person at a time, though.
Many medical organizations, including the Society of Critical Care Medicine, the American Association for Respiratory Care and the American Society of Anesthesiologists, don’t recommend using ventilators for multiple patients because it’s not clinically proven as safe and reliable.
The method introduces some risks, including cross-contamination, reducing the accuracy of the ventilator’s alarms and making the ventilator less able to manage each patient’s changing lung condition.
Can other types of equipment be adapted to be used as ventilators?
At Ohio State and many other hospital systems, we do have other types of equipment that can be used to ventilate patients. These ventilator-capable devices are primarily used for less intensive purposes, but they can be repurposed as ventilators using an endotracheal tube (a tube that’s placed into the windpipe through the mouth or nose).
These machines don’t work as well as ventilators because they don’t have as many settings to help manage patients’ lung conditions, but they could help the COVID-19 patients who are more stable.
How the public can help make sure hospitals have enough ventilators
The best help we can get from the public is continuing to practice social distancing. This will help “flatten the curve” so that we don’t run out of supplies during a surge of COVID-19 cases. For more information about donating equipment, blood, plasma or financial gifts, visit our "Ways to Help" page.
Amanda Zeid is a licensed respiratory therapist and respiratory care practitioner, and she’s an assistant director of Respiratory Therapy at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.