Now the U.S. has lots of ventilators, but too few specialists to operate them.

By Andrew Jacobs

A patient at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. Public health experts have long warned about a shortage of critical care doctors.
A patient at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston. Public health experts have long warned about a shortage of critical care doctors.Credit...Go Nakamura/Getty Images

Ventilators, the sophisticated breathing machines used to sustain the most critically ill patients, are far more plentiful than they were eight months ago, when New York, New Jersey and other hard-hit states were desperate to obtain more of the devices, and hospitals were reviewing triage protocols for rationing care. Now, many hot spots face a different problem: They have enough ventilators, but not nearly enough workers with the years of training to operate them.

Since the spring, American medical device makers have radically ramped up the country’s ventilator capacity by producing more than 200,000 critical care ventilators, with 155,000 of them going to the Strategic National Stockpile. At the same time, doctors have figured out other ways to deliver oxygen to some patients struggling to breathe — including using inexpensive sleep apnea machines or simple nasal cannulas that force air into the lungs through plastic tubes.

But with new cases in the United States approaching 200,000 per day and a flood of patients straining hospitals across the country, public health experts warn that the ample supply of available ventilators may not be enough to save many critically ill patients.

“We’re now at a dangerous precipice,” said Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine. Ventilators, he said, are exceptionally complex machines that require expertise and constant monitoring for the weeks or even months that patients are tethered to them. The explosion of cases in rural parts of Idaho, Ohio, South Dakota and other states has prompted local hospitals that lack such experts on staff to send patients to cities and regional medical centers, but those intensive care beds are quickly filling up.

Public health experts have long warned about a shortage of critical care doctors, known as intensivists, a specialty that generally requires an additional two years of medical training. There are 37,400 intensivists in the United States, according to the American Hospital Association, but nearly half of the country’s acute care hospitals do not have any on staff, and many of those hospitals are in rural areas increasingly overwhelmed by the coronavirus.