US has more ventilators, but a shortage of critical care physicians to operate them

During earlier months of the pandemic, hospitals were primarily concerned about whether they'd have enough ventilators to treat critical patients. Now, after devicemakers ramped up production to make more than 200,000 ventilators, there's plenty — but the new roadblock is a shortage of specialists who are trained to operate the complex machines, The New York Times reports. 

"We can't manufacture doctors and nurses in the same way we can manufacture ventilators," Eric Toner, MD, emergency room doctor and senior scholar at the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told NYT. "And you can't teach someone overnight the right settings and buttons to push on a ventilator for patients who have a disease they've never seen before." 

When Northeast hospitals needed respiratory therapists, pulmonologists, and intensivists or critical care doctors in the spring, specialists from the Midwest were able to answer those calls for help. Now, as COVID-19 cases soar across the country, there isn't much extra help to go around. 

Throughout the Midwest, larger hospitals in metropolitan areas and medical centers are strained as rural COVID-19 surges have led local hospitals with fewer specialists to send patients elsewhere. The U.S. currently has 37,400 intensivists, but many of the nation's acute care hospitals in rural areas don't have any, according to the NYT. 

However, healthcare workers are not as quick to turn to ventilators when patients have low oxygen levels as they were in the spring, turning instead to other learned approaches such as proning or using sleep apnea machines to improve lung function. 

The best solution, though, is to help reduce strain on hospitals by wearing a mask and curbing the spread, health experts told the NYT.


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