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Published on October 6, 2020

What are they

Machines that help patients breathe if they can’t do so on their own. Some use breathing tubes inserted through the windpipe. Other models can be used that are less invasive and use a face mask that fits over the nose and mouth.

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How they’re used

These are considered life saving tools. They are used routinely to help people breathe, including patients under general anesthesia while undergoing surgery. They are also used in the treatment of COVID-19 for the people who are the sickest.

Ventilators don’t heal patients but provide support as a patient’s body fights an infection. Some people are on ventilators for a few hours; others have been on them for weeks. Ventilators were used more frequently at the start of the pandemic. Since then, treatment models have evolved, which means less ventilators are needed.

“You could have a phone call with a frontline hospital worker and hear their voice shaking, talking about trying to make a decision of who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t.”

Chris Kiple, CEO of the ventilator maker Ventec Life Systems

What went wrong

At the start of the pandemic, it was unclear how many ventilators were available in the U.S. The most recent study from 2010 estimated that there were a total of 62,188 full-featured ventilators in hospitals across the country. Based on outbreaks weeks earlier in China and Europe, medical experts in the U.S. were concerned this would not be enough. Worst-case scenarios estimated up to a million ventilators would be needed. On March 17, 2020, the Trump administration said there were 12,700 ventilators in the Strategic National Stockpile.

What’s at stake

Because there’s no cure for COVID-19, which attacks the lungs and respiratory system, access to ventilators can be the difference between life and death for patients in critical condition. These devices are expensive and needed in hospital settings for very serious illnesses, so the threat of a sudden increase of patients with severe respiratory failure left hospitals and the U.S. government scrambling for more machines.

Supplies today

Earlier this year, General Motors and Ventec Life Systems partnered to manufacture ventilator machines, and the U.S. government allocated $3 billion to boost production. Following an increase in ventilator production, under several Defense Production Act contracts, the Department of Health and Human Services reported the Strategic National Stockpile’s ventilator supply had been replenished. They say the stockpile now has approximately 120,000 ventilators to distribute as needed. And the U.S. is now in a position where they are exporting their surplus ventilators overseas.