Defining COVID-19 Terms: Ventilator

June 19, 2020


Elizabeth (Izzy) Montgomery, MPA
Policy Analyst

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In this installment in our series explaining key terms and phrases used by public health officials in discussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, we look at the term “ventilator.”

Mechanical ventilators are machines that help to move air in and out of the lungs of patients with severe lung issues. In some cases, patients with severe cases of COVID-19 require mechanical ventilation, including those that are experiencing acute respiratory distress syndrome. Assessing the number of COVID-19 positive patients who become hospitalized and placed on a ventilator is a significant focus of the public health community.

In the early weeks of the pandemic in the U.S., there were concerns about whether hospitals had enough ventilators to treat severely ill COVID-19 patients. These concerns prompted significant efforts at both the state and federal levels to increase ventilator availability. In early April, Arkansas shared unused ventilators with neighboring Louisiana, which was facing shortages in hard-hit areas like New Orleans at the time. Recent modeling from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences shows the potential for up to 600 patients to require ventilators later this year. Officials have indicated this would not exceed the current supply, which the Arkansas Department of Health reports to be 896 ventilators.

While some early studies found high mortality rates among COVID-19-positive patients requiring mechanical ventilation, more recent reports have suggested mortality rates for COVID-19 patients on ventilators may be lower than previously thought. However, requiring the use of a ventilator is a reliable indicator of more severe illness, and therefore counts of patients on ventilators are publicly reported by most state health departments as part of their COVID-19 tracking efforts and closely watched by public health leaders.

See more definitions of terms and other information about the pandemic on our COVID-19 in Arkansas page.

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