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What would it cost to inject 50,000 machines into the U.S. hospital system? The average hospital-level machine might cost $25,000 in normal times, Branson says, although an ICU ventilator with all the latest features could run double that. So a few billion dollars would go a long way, even if every parts supplier had to be paid extra to expedite delivery. The suppliers might, after all, be adding employees and costly tooling that would become redundant when the crisis is over.
There’s another element of treatment capacity, just as scary: staffing. A ventilator is not a plug and play machine. It needs to be meticulously calibrated to the patient, and if the calibration is not done right or is not updated, the patient is doomed. Pneumothorax, lung collapse, pneumonia from a hospital bug, oxygen toxicity and aspiration of vomit are among the complications. Will there be enough doctors and therapists?
In a crisis, the hospitals will have to get creative. Maybe they will relax some of their rules on credentials. A report yesterday by the critical-care society postulated an emergency staffing that has one ICU doctor overseeing 96 patients on ventilators. That doctor would command a staff of four non-ICU MDs brought in from other assignments, each of them looking after eight respiratory therapists, four ICU nurses and 12 non-ICU nurses (again, repurposed from other wards, like elective surgery). It would be a stretch.