While Palm Springs, Calif., is quiet in light of the shelter-in-place order that limits all but a few essential businesses from normal operations in hopes of curbing the local spread of the coronavirus, much-needed ventilators continue to be produced in a nondescript facility a stone’s throw from The Desert Sun newsroom.
The breathing machines are packed into wooden shipping boxes slated to be sent to medical facilities around the world — but not before the boxes are stamped with sober advisories of the fragile cargo inside:
“Life-saving medical equipment. Handle with extreme care!! May be for you or your loved ones. Thank you!”
Vyaire Medical, a Chicago-based supplier of respiratory care devices, operates the manufacturing plant in Palm Springs where it produces several ventilator models ordered by domestic and international hospitals and agencies.
It is one of about 10 ventilator-manufacturing companies worldwide working to supply critical care facilities with the life-saving machines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Besides the ventilators, Vyaire produces several other medical devices in Palm Springs, while “consumables,” such as the masks and tubes needed for patients to use the ventilators, are produced a few hours drive south — across the border at another facility in Mexicali.
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Hospitals in Italy, which as of Thursday has 41,035 confirmed cases of the coronavirus — the largest amount outside China, where the pandemic began — have been overrun by patients in need of ventilators, leaving doctors there to make the difficult decision of which patient gets one, according to USA TODAY.
“The capacity in Northern Italy hospitals is a preview of a movie that is about to play in the United States,” Marty Makary, a Johns Hopkins University surgeon and health policy expert, told USA TODAY.
Cheston Turbyfill, Vyaire’s vice president of Corporate Communications, said the company is attempting to double its production and workforce to meet demand, all while keeping current staff healthy to ensure they can continue to produce well into the future.
If demand for ventilators continues to surge and manufacturers, like Vyaire, can’t provide them, the consequences could be dire.
As the amount of coronavirus patients in American hospitals increases, the amount of available ventilators dwindles, leading domestic hospitals to face potentially lethal shortages of this critical piece of medical equipment.
There are more than 10,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of Thursday with 150 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Riverside County has a total of 22 cases, with 13 of them in the Coachella Valley. There have been three deaths due to the illness.
A significant amount of the Coachella Valley’s population is considered at-risk for contracting the coronavirus, which could mean that more ventilators will be needed here.
In Palm Springs, 30% of the population is over 65, according to the U.S. Census. Nationwide, that number is under 15%. For the greater Riverside County and San Bernardino County areas, that number is 25%, according to a ProPublica analysis.
A 2010 survey reported U.S. hospitals had about 62,000 ventilators. A respiratory therapist with the American Association for Respiratory Care told USA TODAY that amount has likely grown, but it still is less than 100,000.
Amesh Adalja, a Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security researcher, told The Desert Sun the problem is compounded by the lack of data about how many ventilators are available and how many more will need to be produced.
“We are currently trying to get a handle on how many ventilators we have in the country and how many can be bought from manufacturers,” Adalja said.
Turbyfill said the coronavirus pandemic has created several production challenges.First, he said, demand for ventilators is surging.
“We are currently working with our customers to understand their needs,” Turbyfill said. “We’ve already ramped up production to double than what we normally do and we need to go beyond that.”
Second, Vyaire’s ability to meet the orders is contingent on its ability to get the raw materials needed for production. Some of the materials, such as electrical components like circuit boards, are sourced from China. Suppliers in that nation are beginning to come back online after production was hampered by the coronavirus there, Turbyfill said.
And, third, they have to staff the plant to keep production going.
Vyaire is looking to double its workforce very soon as its leaders get a better idea of what is needed and what they can provide, Turbyfill said.
The company posted a vacancy for a quality inspector at the Palm Springs facility on Wednesday. And postings for field service technicians at its other locations around the country have been posted in the past week. Many more postings will follow, Turbyfill said.
For coronavirus patients experiencing severely limited breathing or even respiratory failure, access to a mechanical ventilator can be a matter of life and death.
Lee Rice, a spokeswoman for the Eisenhower Health in Rancho Mirage, where the valley’s coronavirus patients are being treated, said the hospital ordered 50 ventilators on Wednesday from Vyaire.
Delivery is expected to begin in three weeks, she said, adding that the hospital ordered 50 disposable, single-patient-use ventilators, from a different vendor. Those should arrive in three weeks as well, Rice said.
For now ventilator use is not at capacity at Eisenhower, Rice said. She confirmed that before Wednesday’s order, the hospital already had 45 ventilators on site and not all of them were in use.
Nevertheless, Dr. Rick Loftus believes a ventilator shortage in this region is imminent if coronavirus cases continue to grow. , told the Riverside County Board of Supervisors during a meeting Tuesday.
Loftus is a virologist, HIV researcher and the lead physician of Eisenhower’s COVID Unit. He voiced his concerns on Tuesday before the Riverside County Board of Supervisors.
“Over the next 12 to 18 months, if a proactive social isolation with proactive lockdown conditions… are not implemented, I estimated that 4,000 people age 50 or above will die in my valley and 11,000 of them will require ICU-level care,” Loftus said, adding that he does not speak for the Rancho Mirage hospital.
He warned that the 45 ventilators Eisenhower had at the time of his address, will all be in use within weeks if social distancing and other restrictions are not strictly enforced.
“This is a very serious event,” Loftus said. “This is a once in 500 years event.”