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Ventilators gifted by Musk not quite what hospitals need

Image credit: reuters

Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has distributed over a thousand ventilators to hospitals, although it has since emerged that these ventilators are BPAP machines which cannot be used to treat critically ill Covid-19 patients.

Musk has quickly transitioned from publicly dismissing concerns about the coronavirus pandemic as “dumb”, resisting calls to close non-essential operations at his factories, to offering to assist efforts by procuring and manufacturing ventilators and make use of the temporarily unused factory space in his Tesla Gigafactory in New York State.

Although uptooling factories to manufacture ventilators – as many automotive and aerospace companies have offered to do – is likely to take time, Musk has already purchased and distributed more than a thousand surplus ventilators from California-based ResMed.

However, a Financial Times report has identified that these ventilators are not the sort of which hospitals are in desperate need.

A fraction of Covid-19 patients develop severe breathing difficulties which require them to be treated with invasive ventilators that deliver oxygen to the lungs in order to survive, sometimes while in an induced coma. There is a severe shortage of these invasive ventilators, with the UK alone requiring an estimated 30,000 ventilators to cope with the crisis and doctors warning that the shortage of these devices means that patients more likely to die may need to have their ventilators reallocated to more resilient patients.

Musk was applauded for his offer to help the healthcare community, with public expressions of gratitude from high-profile figures including New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. However, the ventilators provided thus far by Musk have turned out to be non-invasive BPAP machines.

BPAP (Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure) and CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machines are typically used to help patients who suffer from sleep apnea. These machines deliver pressurised air through a mask, preventing the throat muscles from collapsing and allowing the wearer to breathe more easily as they sleep. The Financial Times compared the machines, stating that BPAPs tend to cost around $800 while invasive ventilators can cost around $50,000.

BPAP machines are not sufficient for saving the lives of critically ill patients with Covid-19 and experts, including the American Society of Anesthesiologists, have warned that use of the machines could in fact increase the risk of transmission.

“In general, we’re just telling [healthcare personnel] not to use it,” Professor Comilla Sasson, an expert in emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, told NPR. “Because we are concerned about community spread and we have to assume that anybody with respirator distress is a [Covid-19] patient.”

However, as hospitals grapple with shortages of invasive ventilators, it has been suggested that CPAP and BPAP devices may have to be used as a “first resort” for treating Covid-19 patients. While BPAP and CPAP machines are far more common than invasive ventilators, there has been a surge in demand for the machines due to the likelihood that healthcare professionals will resort to using them on some Covid-19 patients.

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