RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The subject of ventilators has entered the conversation in recent days as hospitals prepare to treat people with coronavirus. One of the biggest concerns is whether the U.S. has enough ventilators to treat critically ill patients. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: The vast majority of patients sickened by the coronavirus will likely only have mild symptoms. But adults over 60, especially those with underlying chronic conditions, are at the greatest risk of complications, like pneumonia. And they may need a ventilator. If the U.S. experiences the severity of illness on a scale like what happened in China, Dr. Eric Toner says the U.S. is not prepared.
ERIC TONER: We are not prepared, nor is any place prepared for a Wuhan-like outbreak.
NEIGHMOND: Toner studies hospital preparedness for pandemics at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
TONER: We would see the same sort of bad outcomes that they saw in Wuhan with a very high case fatality rate due largely to people not being able to access the needed intensive care.
NEIGHMOND: All hospitals have ventilators. The number depends on how many beds they have. An average-sized hospital, for example, might have 20 ventilators. If more are needed, they could be rented. But if there's a high volume of illness in one area, the local hospitals would be competing to rent from the same place. There are emergency supplies.
TONER: There is a strategic national stockpile of ventilators. The number's classified.
NEIGHMOND: So it's not clear how many extra ventilators there are. Estimates range from 4,000 to 10,000. While any number of extra ventilators could be an important addition, Toner says it likely won't be enough to sustain the U.S. through a Wuhan-like experience. He says hospitals could transfer patients to other hospitals that have ventilators available.
TONER: Because not every community is going to be hit simultaneously. Some cities will be badly affected, while others are not so badly affected. And then the wave of disease will move on.
NEIGHMOND: But if the system is still overwhelmed, then Toner says tough decisions would have to be made about who gets access to a ventilator and who does not. For patients with severe pneumonia, ventilators can be life-saving. Pulmonary critical care specialist Dr. William Graham Carlos with Indiana University's School of Medicine.
WILLIAM GRAHAM CARLOS: The coronavirus, like many respiratory viruses, can cause inflammation in the lungs. And when the lungs become inflamed, the membranes that transfer oxygen from the air into the blood become blocked.
NEIGHMOND: Making it difficult to breathe.
CARLOS: Ventilators that you see in an intensive care unit can supply higher levels of oxygen and also help push air into the lungs to open them up and afford more opportunity to get oxygen into the patient.
NEIGHMOND: Ventilators are a bridge to recovery. And most patients do get better. Dr. Craig Coopersmith is a critical care specialist at Emory School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the Society of Critical Care Medicine. He says it's important to remember that in China, only 15% of patients with coronavirus required hospitalization and only a small number of those ended up in the intensive care unit.
CRAIG COOPERSMITH: We are prepared, I believe, but it does depend upon the size of the scale. The estimates are so incredibly wide-ranging that it's difficult to know how broad the pandemic could theoretically be.
NEIGHMOND: And just how many people will get sick enough to be hospitalized and need a ventilator. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.