WASHINGTON – The limited supply of ventilators is one of the main concerns hospitals face as they gear up for what is expected to be an onslaught of COVID-19 cases in April. To prepare, medical professionals in Colorado are finding creative solutions to provide the necessary protective equipment and technology they need to combat the potentially deadly virus.
Hospitals are enlisting anesthesia and BiPAP machines, which help people maintain consistent breathing patterns, to serve as supplementary breathing support for COVID-19 patients with less severe breathing issues.
Veterinarians who specialize in respiratory problems in animals are also repurposing or donating ventilators with advanced technology for human use in hospitals.
Tim Hackett, director of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Colorado State University, is “happy to see them helping where they can.”
Hackett said CSU’s veterinary lab is waiting on approval to do human testing for COVID-19, and they are working on ways to resterilize and refresh N95 respirators for reuse.
Companies like Ford and General Motors are restructuring to produce ventilators. But Hackett said he is “very interested in hearing how General Motors and Ford are going to make those things,” since they are very complex machines.
“It’s not enough to have a ventilator, you have to have people who know how to monitor them,” Hackett said.
Cara Welch, director of communications for the Colorado Hospital Association, said, “Anything with an assembly line production that can produce in a rapid time frame is a viable solution.”
Hospitals will be stretched with existing staff to consistently monitor the patients on ventilators, but hospitals are suspending nonessential surgeries so surgeons can be trained to handle a ventilator under the supervision of a specialist as the number of cases increases.
The hospitals that will be stretched the most are those in rural areas of the state, which are “already operating on a pretty thin margin,” Welch said.
With a decrease in revenue and added costs, rural clinics and health care systems are struggling financially. COVID-19 hasn’t hit a lot of rural areas hard yet, but doctors and nurses are prepping for a significant uptick.
“This is a very difficult time right now,” Welch said.
A solution that the Colorado Hospital Association is working on would move non-COVID-19 patients to the rural clinics where they can receive care for less serious medical issues, and advanced COVID-19 patients would be moved to larger city hospitals with more resources and personnel.
Officials don’t yet have a specific number on how many ventilators hospitals in Colorado will need. It depends on how quickly the curve of COVID-19 spread slows over the coming weeks.
Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez; Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., are pushing President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to send more supplies to Colorado from the national stockpile, as medical professionals estimate the supplies they are set to receive will last for only a day.
“For every ventilator that is needed for critical care that we do not have, a life that may otherwise have been saved will be lost,” Tipton wrote in a letter to Trump. “This has already happened in Italy, however, with action and investment now, we may be able to lessen the impact here.”
In an interview with The Durango Herald, Gardner said Congress is considering another phase of legislation on COVID-19 that would focus on implementation of the funds doled out in the $2 trillion stimulus package recently signed into law.
“A lot of what rural hospitals needed is taken care of in this bill,” Gardner said. “We need to pressure the administration to get the funding out the door as quickly as possible.”
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.