What are ventilators and why are they necessary in the fight against COVID-19?

One word we have heard quite a bit over the last few weeks is ventilator. Many of us are familiar with ventilators but why are they so crucial in the treatment of Coronavirus? For patients with the worst effects of the infection, a ventilator offers the best chance of survival.

Ventilators won't fix the ailments that put patients on them, but they can provide support until other treatments work or the patient's body overcomes the disease.

What is a ventilator and what does it do?

Simply put, a ventilator takes over the body's breathing process when disease has caused the lungs to fail. According to the American Thoracic Society, a ventilator (also known as a mechanical ventilator, respirator, or breathing machine) is a life support treatment that helps people breathe when they can’t breathe on their own. The machine gets oxygen into the lungs and the body and helps to get rid of carbon dioxide through the lungs.

A ventilator is connected to the patient through a tube placed into their mouth or nose and inserted into the windpipe (a process known as intubation). In some cases, patients have surgery to have a hole made in their neck, and a tracheostomy or “trach” tube is inserted through the hole to the trachea. The ventilator then blows gas (consisting of air, plus oxygen if required) into the patient’s lungs.

This gives the patient time to fight off the infection and recover. A ventilator can help the patient by doing all of some of their breathing by delivering high levels of oxygen to the lungs. It can also provide positive end expiratory pressure (PEEP), which helps hold the lungs open so the air sacs do not collapse. It many cases of Coronavirus the patient has developed a cough, in this case the tube in the windpipe also assisting in getting rid of mucus.

Importance in Treatment of Coronavirus

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), some 80% of people with Covid-19 - the disease caused by coronavirus - recover without needing hospital treatment. That being said, one person in six becomes seriously ill and can develop breathing difficulties. In some cases the virus has caused pneumonia and other inflammation that impairs the lung's function. When treating a patient with COVID-19, a ventilator allows the medical team to support their breathing function until they are able to regain function. It can most literally be the difference in life and death.

The ventilator can be set to take a certain number of breaths for you per minute. Your doctor also may decide to program the ventilator to kick in when you need help. In this case, the machine will blow air into your lungs automatically if you haven’t taken a breath in a set amount of time.

A ventilator doesn’t cure COVID-19 or other illnesses that caused your breathing problem. It helps you survive until you get better and your lungs can work on their own. When your doctor thinks you are well enough, they will test your breathing. The ventilator stays connected but set so that you can try to breathe on your own. When you breathe normally, the tubes will be removed and the ventilator will be turned off.

In general, hospitals only have a limited supply of ventilators at any given time. The concern now is with the increase of the virus and with hospitals overloading with patients requiring ventilators, most medical centers will not have enough to meet the overwhelming need. This is a true crisis that cannot be solved without having more ventilators available.

As the last line of defense, there are no guarantees mechanical ventilation will keep a patient alive. They're not a cure. But they form a critical component in COVID-19 health care. They buy time.

Ventilator shortages are widespread. President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act -- a relic of the Korean War that enables and encourages widespread production of critical medical equipment -- to compel General Motors to speed up ventilator manufacturing. But new machines could still be a month away, and health authorities are pleading for them right now.

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