Because COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, affects the respiratory system, the number of hospitalized patients in need of breathing assistance has increased dramatically. Mechanical ventilators are in high demand because they pump air into the lungs of respiratory patients who have difficulty breathing on their own. Before the outbreak, most U.S. hospitals had enough ventilators to serve their patients, but due to the dysfunction of respiratory function that the illness causes, health care facilities are seeing a higher number of patients who are not getting the oxygen they need into their bloodstream, which leads to organ failure. Though a large majority of COVID-19 patients do not require hospitalization due to mild symptoms that can be managed at home, the percentage of those infected who have underlying conditions that will aggravate the disease will require the aid of a ventilator.
But what is a ventilator? "Ventilators are hospital bedside machines that assist with two critical functions: getting enough oxygen into the bloodstream and clearing out carbon dioxide, which can build up when the patient is too weak or sick to move air in and out of the lungs." For the most part, patients on ventilators receive pain management medications, but are not sedated so they are awake and aware when they are hooked up to the machine. Highly trained staff are also needed to properly intubate a patient and monitor them. According to Dr. David Zaas, president of Duke Raleigh Hospital and associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Duke University School of Medicine, "We could make a million ventilators, but do we have enough respiratory therapists that are trained to care for patients on ventilators, and do we have enough nurses that are trained in caring for patients that are critically ill?"