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Study reveals availability of ventilators per state prior to Coronavirus pandemic

Excerpts from an interview with Tim Myers, Chief Business Officer of the American Association for Respiratory Care

By: Joy Burton

Originally Published: April 8, 2020

With state officials either unable or unwilling to disclose how many ventilators their hospitals own amidst the coronavirus pandemic, a study could help Americans understand the availability of ventilators in their area.

The study was based on a survey conducted in 2009 by the American Association for Respiratory Care and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The survey was distributed to hospitals across the U.S. following the H1N1 Pandemic that year. It was created to measure whether the United States was prepared to address an urgent need for critical care ventilators.

“If there was a hurricane or some major regional issue, we probably were set up to handle that with the ventilator supply,” said Tim Myers, chief business officer for the respiratory care organization based in Irving, Texas.

But it also found that some states were more equipped than others to handle a pandemic. The study provides maps comparing the number of people per state with the availability of critical care ventilators in the state’s hospitals.

When considering how many ventilators are available per state, ventilators are often clustered near cities and coast regions, Myers said.

He said rural areas are most likely to experience ventilator shortages.

An InvestigateTV analysis of ICU beds in the nation found that more than 700 counties did not have a critical care bed, which also would mean a lack of ventilators in those places.

But in a pandemic, even large metropolitan areas suffer.

“Right now, when you see areas of surge like in New York City, all the resources they have are being tapped to an extreme,” Myers told InvestigateTV.

Myers said at the time the results of the survey were published, it led to action. The Strategic National Stockpile of ventilators grew from about 4,000 ventilators to about 16,000 to address ventilator shortages.

The study also revealed that 95% of the time, the number of ICU beds in a hospital was the same as its number of critical care ventilators. Myers said it is reasonably safe to assume this is still true even though the study was conducted more than a decade ago.

Steve Nelson, a co-author of the study and former AARC associate executive director, said the number of ICU beds and ventilators a hospital owns is similar because under usual circumstances 25%-40% of all people who visit an ICU require ventilators.

The study also revealed that nearly half all critical care ventilators owned by hospitals were not full or were not meant for use by people under the age of 14.

Some ventilators like these with limited capabilities can be modified to work as fully functional ventilators, Nelson said. Ventilators which are “retired,” or no longer used by doctors, can also be used during a shortage, Nelson said.

Myers said right now, the current crisis, demands creativity: hospitals are retrofitting sleep apnea and anesthesia machines to act as ventilators.

Burton is a student at Indiana University and works for the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism, a partner of InvestigateTV.