Coronavirus ventilator shortage prompts health care workers, manufacturers to get creative

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Doctors and nurses are staring down a critical shortage of ventilators as the number of coronavirus cases rise, and health officials have given them, and equipment manufacturers, the go-ahead to get creative with other breathing equipment.

Some of these steps could help immediately, while others are long-shots. But medical experts say in times such as these, fresh ideas can save lives.

"Equivalent of the wartime mentality that, you know, your grandparents would have spoken of during World War II; all hands on deck, everyone help in every possible way," said Dr. D. Kyle Hogarth, University of Chicago Medicine Pulmonary and Critical Care physician.

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Ventilators are in short supply. To grow the number, U.S. drug regulators have given emergency approval that allows other devices to be repurposed as ventilators, including C-PAP machines used by sleep apnea patients to breathe while they sleep.

"There's a lot of resources that are going to be needed and so all of the team that's working on the hospital capacity and the surge are identifying all the different needs and trying to secure as much of that as we can in preparation for what's coming," said Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

In New York, officials gave approval to split ventilators, running two tubes from the same machine, giving hospitals twice the capacity. Some ventilator makers said they have approval to produce products that would allow four patients at the same time to breathe off a single device.

"One of the major concerns, of course, is you have to have patients have similar lung compliance," Dr. Hogarth said. "If, for example, my lungs are very, very stiff and I'm on the machine, the machine has to push harder to fill the air into my chest. If you're hooked to the same circuit as me, and your lungs are not as stiff or not as big, and that you're going to receive the same force to push as mine, it can be extremely dangerous for you."

Thousands of ventilators will be manufactured by Dyson, a company best known for vacuums and hand dryers. There is also an effort in Italy to turn snorkeling equipment into C-PAP-style masks that could deliver oxygen therapy to coronavirus patients.

Despite all the new ideas, for doctors there remains an age-old ethical reality

"I'll make up a number you know, if I'm a hospital with 200 ventilators, when patient 201 comes through the door and needs the ventilator, what am I to do?" said Dr. Hogarth.

University of Chicago Medicine announced Thursday night it will be bringing back employees who had been furloughed for possible exposure to COVID-19. Those employees not showing symptoms of being sick will still have to wear face masks while at U of C.
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