Health officials taking stock of hospital ventilators

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Local, state and federal health officials will know this month precisely how many mechanical ventilators - machines that pump oxygen into ailing lungs - are at every hospital in case the swine flu becomes a moderate to severe outbreak.

Inventories of the machines are being counted at hospitals on Long Island and nationwide in a survey conducted by the American Association for Respiratory Care. The AARC is an organization of respiratory therapists, professionals who assist hospital patients who have difficulty breathing.

In serious flu cases, fluid-filled lungs require mechanical assistance. Federal preparedness planners say in a severe outbreak as many as 740,000 ventilators may be needed nationwide.

The ventilator census was sought by the Department of Health and Human Services, one of the federal agencies overseeing the nation's response to H1N1.

Hospitals are being urged to complete the survey by Sept. 10. "We have to make sure we know where ventilators are located so that in case of an emergency, patients can be directed to the appropriate facilities," said Alan Schwalberg, director of emergency medical services for the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System. Sam Giordano, AARC executive director, said responses had been collected from 32 percent of hospitals nationwide.

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Two years ago, at the height of the bird flu scare, federal pandemic planners worried too few ventilators were available. Schwalberg's predecessor estimated then there were 50,000 ventilators in New York and 5,000 on Long Island. State health officials now decline to disclose the number of machines. They say the information is considered sensitive, as ventilators may be needed during an act of bioterrorism, and officials don't want the nation's enemies to know what would be available during a crisis.

They do say the number has increased since the bird flu scare. "Right now, we have enough ventilators in the state to enable us to respond to a moderate pandemic," said Claire Pospisil, spokeswoman for the New York State Department of Health.

"If the need exceeds what we have stockpiled, we would secure additional ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile," she said of the cache of medical supplies maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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