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Ventilators and respirators are not the same thing — but there's still a dire shortage of both

INSIDER logoINSIDER 2020-03-25 Haven Orecchio-Egresitz

a person sitting on top of a refrigerator © Reuters

With a shortage of medical equipment required to safely care for patients with COVID-19, government agencies and private companies have stepped up to fill the gaps.

Tesla, Ford, and GE are among the companies who have vowed their assistance in the production of respirators and ventilators. The Defense Department is also working to making millions of respirators available from their stockpile.

There's a dire need for both respirators and ventilators. Many COVID-19 patients need a ventilator to survive, and medical workers need respirators like the N95 mask to protect themselves as they treat people.

Here's why each of them are essential for the fight against the coronavirus.

Ventilators help the patient breathe

Ventilators are medical devices used in an intensive care setting. The machines assist patients who are having trouble breathing or can't breathe on their own.

"What a ventilator does is takes over breathing for the patient. It does that is a very specific way," Dr. Burton Bentley II told Insider. "As opposed to just applying oxygen to someone ... it takes the next step."

The new coronavirus is a respiratory virus. Severe cases can inflame the lungs and fill them with fluid. If that happens, a doctor would want to put the patient onto a respirator to help support the lungs.

To set up a ventilator, a medical worker puts an endotracheal tube down the patient's airway and connect it to the machine. That is then responsible for pushing air into the patient's lungs and removing it, Bentley said.

"The reason we do that is when people lose their own ability to have normal respiration," he said, "They are too fatigued, or their lungs are impaired because they're full of fluid, or they can't in their own power oxygenate themselves at an effective level."

When a patient is on a ventilator, doctors can decide on the level of oxygen and at what pressure and volume the patient will receive it. Some medications can also be administered through the ventilator.

a clock on the side © Reuters

Typically, treatment on ventilators will begin in an emergency room, but then end up in intensive care. But there's a limited number of beds in intensive care units that can accommodate ventilators.

"With COVID-19, the reason we're needing ventilators and the reason we're short on ventilators is that having to put someone in an intensive care unit on a ventilator is an extreme step," Bentley said. "Hopefully we've done everything prior to that point to oxygenate and to treat infection and to provide supportive care."

The use of ventilators also requires a lot of staff, and so it's important to make sure that health care providers are protected from the coronavirus, he said.

That's where respirators come in.

Respirators - specifically N95 respirator masks - protect healthcare workers

With the coronavirus infecting more than 400,000 people worldwide, there is a shortage of medical protective equipment.

One of the most essential pieces of gear that is now in low supply is the N95 respiratory mask.

The N95 is a protective device that filters out at least 95 percent of very small particles, according to the US Food and Drug Administration.

It is designed to have a very close facial fit and remove dangerous airborne particles so medical professionals in close proximity to a patient avoid catching their infections.

a pair of sunglasses on a table © Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged the public not to try and acquire the masks for themselves as they are needed in hospitals to keep doctors and nurses safe.

Despite these warnings, some are still so eager to get their hands on the devices that they're stealing them from hospitals.

While N95s are usually worn once before being replaced, the shortage has prompted some hospitals to require staff to reuse the same mask throughout their shift.

The CDC also recently changed its guidelines for mask use to respond to the shortage of N95 respirators. In places with shortages, it now says that N95 masks can be reserved for coronavirus cases involving "procedures that are likely to generate respiratory aerosols" - meaning that airborne particles carrying the virus would be flying about.

One such instance is intubation, one of the steps required to put someone on a ventilator. In other cases, medical staff should wear surgical masks and leave the N95s for the workers who need them, the CDC says.

Related video: Will the N95 respirator mask protect you against coronavirus? Here's what an expert says [via Health]

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