With shortage of ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients, hospitals face ethical and logistical questions

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner, Jonathan Fagg WLS logo
Thursday, March 26, 2020
With a shortage of ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients, hospitals face with ethicals and logistical questions
Hospitals and officials are trying to decide what to do if there are too many patients and not enough ventilators.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Ventilators are also known as artificial breathing machines. Wednesday night, hospitals across Chicago and the country are mapping out plans to ration ventilators if they have to.

Hospitals are grappling with logistical and ethical questions, such as if there is a single ventilator available, but 100 coronavirus patients at a hospital are struggling to breathe, which one of them gets the equipment? And who decides?

If ventilators run out, the thought of having to decide which patients get a ventilator is already haunting Chicago doctors.

"We as healthcare providers do not want to get to that point, that is heartbreaking and not what any of us went into medicine to do, right? And we really want to make sure that we maintain our, our capabilities," said Dr. Susan Bleasdale, medical director of infection prevention at UI Health.

Gov. JB Pritzker's stay-at-home order for the state, and efforts at social distancing, are aimed at cutting the number of people who will get sick and need ventilators.

There are enough ventilators today, but with no intervention, state officials say we would have run out Monday. By April 6, more than half the COVID-19 victims who would need ventilators would not have able to have one.

"We want to create some sense of guidelines for how to make the decisions as a group that we are not asking, individual caregivers to make individual decisions for each patient," said Dr. Peter Angelos, a medical ethicist at The University of Chicago Medical Center.

A number of factors including the patient's overall condition, as well as likelihood that they will actually benefit from intervention will determine who gets a ventilator, Angelos said.

"I think most people believe that the most equitable approach is, in fact, a lottery system, rather than who's in line first," he said. "This is something that me and the U.S. has almost never had to do in our practice of medicine, and so this is going to be incredibly difficult for people to do."

There are 1,600 ventilators available as of Wednesday, according to Illinois authorities.

In worst case scenario projections, the state would need at least 4,100 more ventilators in the next two weeks.

The hope is that the stay-at-home and separation steps will curb the need for so many, but officials are looking for more just in case.

This story includes Adriana Aguilar animation.