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The Coronavirus Ventilator Screwup

Just over a month ago the Trump administration, late in recognizing the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, scrambled to overcome a shortage of ventilators that health experts said were needed to save critically ill patients' lives.

(Listen to the podcast)

So, rocked by criticism from governors, healthcare leaders, and lawmakers of both parties, President Trump on March 28 invoked the Defense Production Act and ordered automobile manufacturers to begin producing the devices.

Trump said the action "will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives." He promised to deliver 100,000 ventilators within 100 days.

That sent the department of Health and Human Services, which had not ordered any new ventilators since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January, into panic mode, spending nearly $3 billion to get the machines built.

Now, just 44 days later, there appears to be a ventilator glut in the national stockpile, as the Associated Press reports the agency will exceed 100,000 new ventilators by around July 13, just a week later than Trump's promised 100 days. And, according to the AP, current federal purchasing contracts indicate the government will receive nearly 200,000 new ventilators by year's end, more than doubling the 160,000 such devices in U.S. hospitals before the pandemic.

"We became the king of ventilators, thousands and thousands of ventilators," Trump boasted on April 29.

Just one little problem.

Demand has plummeted, even though coronavirus cases and deaths continue to escalate. That's because many doctors are using ventilators only as a last resort, since the death rate of Covid 19 patients on the devices is much higher than usual. In fact, some doctors worry that using the machines on at least some of these patients actually can make matters worse. explains it this way:

Mechanical ventilators push oxygen into patients whose lungs are failing. Using the machines involves sedating a patient and sticking a tube into the throat. Deaths in such sick patients are common, no matter the reason they need the breathing help.

Generally speaking, 40% to 50% of patients with severe respiratory distress die while on ventilators, experts say. But 80% or more of coronavirus patients placed on the machines in New York City have died, state and city officials say.

Higher-than-normal death rates also have been reported elsewhere in the U.S., said Dr. Albert Rizzo, the American Lung Association's chief medical officer.

Similar reports have emerged from China and the United Kingdom. One U.K. report put the figure at 66%. A very small study in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the disease first emerged, said 86% died.

The reason is not clear. It may have to do with what kind of shape the patients were in before they were infected. Or it could be related to how sick they had become by the time they were put on the machines, some experts said.

But some health professionals have wondered whether the breathing machines might actually make matters worse in certain patients, perhaps by igniting or worsening a harmful immune system reaction.

That is troubling news, indeed.

Nevertheless, ventilators were deemed to be essential to the survival of many Covid 19 patients, so should not SOMEONE in the Department of Health and Human Services have recognized in January that the devices would be in huge demand and that there was an insufficient supply?

Had production been ramped up then rather than in late March, panic mode and unnecessary production of costly devices that apparently -- and hopefully -- will not be needed could have been avoided.

Was this just another example of the Trump administration's mismanagement of this crisis from the beginning?

So it would seem.

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