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The ventilator need is urgent

A ventilator is displayed during a news conference

A ventilator is displayed during a news conference on March 24, 2020 at the New York City Emergency Management Warehouse, where 400 ventilators have arrived and will be distributed. Credit: AP/Mark Lennihan

Think New York’s need for ventilators isn’t urgent? Take a look at what doctors here are trying as a last resort: splitting or sharing the lifesaving machines.

Ventilators help patients breathe, pumping in oxygen and sucking out carbon dioxide. COVID-19 patients can spend days on the device, clinging to life. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo estimates the state could need some 40,000 ventilators for the coronavirus crisis. Currently, we don’t have anywhere close to that, despite Cuomo and other officials sourcing new ones and pleading with President Donald Trump for help. Yet Trump, who painted a grim picture in his Tuesday coronavirus news conference, including estimates of at least 100,000 deaths, hasn’t given New York all it needs.

New York’s dedicated health care professionals are committed to keeping patients alive. So they are working on little-tested ways to use one machine for multiple people.

Great idea, you might think — we can improvise our way to safety. The method has been tried in crisis situations, including the mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017 and in Italy after its hospitals became overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

But it’s a risky experiment. Doctors would need to make sure multiple patients need essentially the same level of ventilation. There are concerns about cross-contamination.

Yet this is what our health care workers are forced to consider, from NewYork-Presbyterian to Mount Sinai to Northwell Health and more. Long Island’s main hospitals suggest they have enough ventilators for now, but that could change, and some facilities are approaching ventilator capacity already. Health professionals are trying other Scotch-taped doomsday preparations. Those include converting anesthesia machines or repurposing bilevel positive airway pressure devices.

Then there are bag valve masks, which might be able to keep someone alive and help them breathe for a short while, but would need to be operated basically by hand.

It does not have to be this way. The federal stockpile of machines can be tapped further. And the power of the federal government is needed to coordinate purchases and movement of machines among states. Cuomo has warned that states and the federal government have been competing. That inflates prices and slows procurement. States should not be fighting themselves. And more use of the Defense Production Act could get American industry cranking on ventilator creation. It may not happen quickly enough for New York’s crisis, but other states will still need ventilators down the road.

Trump has sent some ventilators here and to Florida, his new home state, and belatedly nudged General Motors to speed up ventilator production. Meanwhile, he says he wants to hold thousands of ventilators in reserve for the apex and has hemmed and hawed about whether materials are being hoarded, claiming he’s sent New York enough.

People’s lives are on the line. The apex of the crisis is expected to hit New York very soon. Our doctors are being driven to desperate measures to save us. Send help.

— The editorial board

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