What does a ventilator do and how does it help COVID-19 patients?

What does a ventilator do and how does it help COVID-19 patients?
Current understanding about how the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) spreads is largely based on what is known about similar coronaviruses. COVID-19 is a new disease and there is more to learn about how it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, and to what extent it may spread in the United States. (Source: CDC)

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - In some COVID-19 cases, the virus can attack a patient's respiratory system, wreaking havoc on the lungs.

The question many are left seeking an answer for is how exactly ventilators help severely ill patients diagnosed with the virus.

Dr. Jonathan Richards with Our Lady of the Lake works in the Pulmonary Care Unit. Richards says the virus can lead to inflammation in the respiratory system.

“When that happens people have difficulty breathing, they may have wheezing,” Dr. Richards explains. “They experience shortness of breath and in a worst-case scenario it causes their oxygen levels to become low.”

Dr. Richards says it can become dangerously low enough that in some circumstances patients head to the hospital for a ventilator.

Right now, according to the Louisiana Department of Health over 200 patients are on ventilators.

A ventilator compresses air to the lungs, according to Dr. Richards. Tubes get inserted through a patient’s mouth into their lungs.

Those tubes connect to a hose that goes to the ventilator.

“And that allows the physician to choose a number of breaths and a certain amount of air pushed in by the breathing machine. It also allows us to choose how much oxygen goes into the lungs," said Richards.

Doctors say when someone with COVID-19 is severely ill, the ventilator is the best option to pass along a high concentration of oxygen.

“What we’re realizing is that when people get sick, they get very sick very quickly. So for the sickest of the sick, there’s no question that these are the types of tools at our disposal to make sure they’re getting the best possible care,” Dr. Richards says.

He says most people might be familiar with the nasal cannula device also used to deliver oxygen, however, there’s only a certain amount of air that can be delivered that way.

Some may wonder why physicians are not opting to use a CPAP Machine or something similar.

But Dr. Richards says receiving oxygen through a mask on the outside of the face tends to not be as effective in severe cases. Also, the constant flow of air could increase the spread.

“Blowing that air in and that air coming out around that mask means that the virus can be put into the air,” Dr. Richards says. “It can stay suspended in some cases up to three hours by the best science that we have about this. Certainly, that increases the risk of other healthcare providers coming into the room, but also increases the chance of someone in the hospital becoming infected.”

However, Dr. Richards says if you do use a CPAP machine at home and have been given a positive diagnosis, continue using your machine as prescribed. Any questions or concerns should be directed toward your physician.

During a press conference Thursday, March 26, Governor John Bel Edwards said New Orleans could be out of ventilators by April 2. The governor says he’s leaving no stone unturned when it comes to finding more.

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