Ventilators: State hunts for more amid concerns

BY TREVOR BROWN
Oklahoma Watch
04/08/2020 08:30 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A patient on a ventilator lies in hospital bed. Oklahoma hospitals may need more life-saving ventilators to meet projections that thousands of Oklahomans will be hospitalized with COVID-19 in the coming weeks. SHUTTERSTOCK VIA OKLAHOMA WATCH
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative stories on important issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org. COURTESY
Oklahoma hospitals may need more life-saving ventilators to meet projections that thousands of Oklahomans will be hospitalized with COVID-19 in the coming weeks.

But state officials aren’t releasing information yet on how likely that scenario is or how many additional ventilators might be needed.

Shelley Zumwalt, chief of innovation for the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services, said the state is preparing a report on types of resources, including ventilators, that will be needed if COVID-19 hospitalizations surge by more 40 percent.

That report is expected to be released this week. But regardless, Zumwalt said, the state is pushing ahead to acquire more equipment.

“We are looking into every possible avenue that is FDA-approved to source ventilators,” she said in an email.

State data shows hospitals reported having 1,081 ventilators as of April 3, based on 89% of hospitals responding to the state’s survey. Of the total, 772, or 71%, were being used by COVID-19 patients or those who have other medical conditions. No breakout of COVID-19 patients on ventilators was provided.

The state Department of Health has an additional 132 ventilators on hand that could be deployed across the state.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said Oklahoma could have enough ventilators if the number of COVID-19 cases peaks earlier, and is lower, than some models project. But if not, Oklahoma will need to acquire more, especially if the disease strikes many communities across the state at the same time.

The scarcity of ventilators is an issue across the country. The machines help critically ill patients, by pumping air in and out of their lungs, where COVID-19 can lead to pneumonia and choke off the transfer of oxygen to the blood.

Leaders in other states already hit hard by the pandemic, including New York, have made desperate pleas to the White House for more ventilators and other equipment.

The dire situation in those states has caused some hospitals to ration ventilators and retrofit other equipment to create makeshift ventilators.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order ordering National Guard troops to commandeer ventilators from hospitals and other medical centers where the outbreak is milder and transport them to harder-hit hospitals in New York City.

As Oklahoma prepares for an intensifying surge, which could peak on April 23 according to one model, hospital leaders are watching to gauge whether Oklahoma could face a similar crunch.

LaWanna Halstead, vice president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said hospitals have a good supply at the moment, but that could change.

“We are not at capacity (for treatment) right now, so we are OK,” she said. “But we are gearing up for the next three weeks for when we’ll be seeing a lot of patients.”

Part of the problem is that the state is still evaluating models to project when different parts of the state will see a peak in cases. Stitt likened this to forecasting a hurricane.

“The further that hurricane is out in the ocean and away from land, the cone of uncertainty is really, really wide,” he said. “As we get more testing and data, that cone of uncertainty will narrow and we’ll have a more specific focus.”

Halstead said hospitals are also unsure how many ventilators will be needed.

“We are looking at numbers ranging from catastrophic to something more manageable,” she said. “So our kind of thinking is that we’ll fall somewhere in the middle of that, so we need to be prepared for some relatively high numbers.”

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