Three months ago, when coronavirus cases began surging, fears of a shortage of ventilators mounted.
Those concerns have eased for now, said Chris Brooks, chief strategy officer at Ventec. The Bothell-based company partnered with General Motors in March to fill a $489.4 million federal government order for 30,000 ventilators by late August.
Production is on track and enough of the lifesaving machines will be built this summer to accommodate demand for what some predict will be a second wave of cases later this year, Brooks said.
“This isn’t a, ‘We need these ventilators right now, we’re running out of ventilators tomorrow,’ as was the case just a couple of months ago,’’ Brooks said. “But all indicators are that until we have a vaccine, until we have a cure for COVID, ventilators are part of the solution to provide confidence to the general public that as we begin to reopen the economy … ventilators are part of the safety net for health agencies and government officials to ensure that should you get sick with COVID, you’ll be able to be taken care of.’’
GM and other automakers teamed up with ventilator companies to leverage supply lines in unprecedented short order and ramp up abandoned assembly plants to make the medical devices.
Right after the Ventec-GM deal, Ford and General Electric announced they’d join forces to produce 50,000 ventilators by July.
But Washington and other states by April began shipping ventilators elsewhere as cases tapered off, offering them to states like New York, where COVID-19 was spiking. Washington returned 400 of the 500 machines it had received from the Strategic National Stockpile. Though those ventilators weren’t strong enough to treat COVID-19 patients, officials hoped they would be given for non-COVID use so the stronger machines could be used on coronavirus patients.
There were about 16,600 ventilators in the federal stockpile before the pandemic. Trump administration officials in March predicted a need for 130,000 ventilators, prompting the president to invoke the wartime production law under the promise of mass-producing “100,000 ventilators in 100 days.”
Current production schedules show the country could produce 200,000 ventilators by year’s end.
Daniel Adelman, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, told The Associated Press last month the U.S. government was buying more than twice the number of ventilators it needs even under a worst-case scenario.
One issue was doctors were finding a mortality rate of 40% to 50% among COVID-19 patients placed on ventilators and thus began using the machines only as a last resort. Medical experts say it’s unclear how much ventilators contributed to COVID-19 deaths, given those on the machines were already facing life-threatening conditions.
Mechanical ventilators pump air through a tube placed directly into a patient’s lungs. But side effects can include overinflating the lungs and a weakening of the diaphragm and surrounding muscles over time that make unassisted breathing difficult once a patient is taken off the machine.
Brooks agreed “there’s certainly been a lot of conversation about ventilator usage for COVID patients. A lot of it really kind of dovetails with the ongoing conversation about treating (all) patients and where mechanical ventilation fits in.”
But treating COVID-19 patients with noninvasive ventilation — like assisted breathing though a mask — also has drawbacks that include the potential for fluid droplets leaking into the air and infecting caregivers or nearby patients.
“There are advantages and disadvantages to invasive and noninvasive ventilation,” Brooks said, adding that the mechanical ventilators are still the best at preventing air leaks and spreading the illness.
Ventec’s ventilator, the VOCSN, limits such risks, given it combines five respiratory functions — ventilation, oxygen, cough, suction and nebulization — into one machine. Brooks said the “cough therapy” function built into VOCSN means coughing can be mechanically induced in a COVID-19 patient though the same tubes without having to switch machines and “expose the airway and open the risk of infection” to others.
Brooks added that VOCSN can also provide noninvasive “high flow” air therapy to a patient on the machine before they receive ventilation — helping protect caregivers by streamlining care and reducing the interaction of switching machines.
Much of Ventec’s efforts since April have been focused on helping GM’s plant in Kokomo, Indiana, ramp up production. But the company — boosted from just over 100 employees pre-pandemic to about 150 now — plans to increase its Bothell production later this month as it gains more access to component parts.
Ventec’s growth comes as its VOCSN could be more widely used by non-COVID-19 patients. As of this month, Medicare and Medicaid rules were changed so that patients on a different respiratory machine providing one of the VOCSN functions can now switch over to the Ventec units and still be covered.
Also, the future impact of coronavirus and any “second surge” remains a mystery. Iowa this week placed a $10 million order for 500 VOCSN machines in anticipation of new waves of the virus overwhelming hospitals.
“From our perspective,” Brooks said, “that demand is still there.”