CORONAVIRUS

Iowa buying 500 ventilators as second wave of coronavirus looms

A doctor checks a medical ventilator control panel while wearing protective clothing. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
A doctor checks a medical ventilator control panel while wearing protective clothing. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

IOWA CITY — Iowa is moving ahead with a $10 million purchase to stockpile ventilators for coronavirus patients, even though overall demand for the breathing machines has dropped and more than 760 are available at hospitals statewide.

The president of a distribution company working to supply 500 ventilators to Iowa said Thursday that the decision to buy now is smart, given that new waves of the virus could still potentially overwhelm hospitals in the coming months.

“I don’t think anyone understands really enough about what this second wave or third wave is going to look like. ... The question is, isn’t it prudent to have these available versus not having them available?” said David Knott, of Michigan-based KKM Global Group LLC, who noted that daily cases are on the rise in many states.

Iowa’s executive branch on March 30 ordered 500 ventilators through Knott’s company at a cost of $20,600 apiece, according to a $10.3 million purchase order obtained by the Associated Press under the open records law.

About 2 1/2 months later, Iowa has received only five of them, though it expects to receive the rest over the next several months, state officials said.

“The state recognizes the need to have ventilators on hand to address possible future medical surge within Iowa,” said John Benson, spokesman for Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The company manufacturing Iowa’s ventilators is working to ramp up production and to fill major orders from the federal government and larger states.

At the time of Iowa’s order, the nation faced a shortage of ventilators and uncertainty over what a worst-case coronavirus scenario might look like. Some states worried that supplies of the breathing machines could run out, potentially leaving thousands of ill patients gasping for air.

The federal government has increased production dramatically since then, resulting in a potential glut. Some experts warn, however, that a second wave of the virus could overwhelm hospitals during the next flu season.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has cited the broad availability of hospital beds and ventilators as one reason that she feels comfortable lifting restrictions that were intended to stop the spread of the virus, which causes respiratory illness.

Doctors use ventilators to treat some of the most critically ill coronavirus patients, delivering oxygen to their lungs through a breathing tube. But hospitals have been using them only as a last resort and searching for alternatives after studies showed many patients do not survive once put on the machines.

As of Thursday, 48 patients were on ventilators in Iowa, down from a peak of 109 on May 7, according to data on the state’s coronavirus website. At hospitals across the state, 767 ventilators are available for patients, or more than 80 percent of the total.

The number of patients hospitalized has dropped significantly, to 242 on Thursday from a high of 417. Reynolds cited the drop Wednesday as she removed a 50 percent cap on customer capacity for businesses that had been required to allow for social distancing.

“Throughout this time, critical health care resources, including ICU beds and ventilators, remained stable across the state and, most importantly, Iowans received the quality of care they needed and deserved,” she said.

The ventilators ordered by Iowa are manufactured by Ventec Life Systems, a Bothell, Wash.-based company that is partnering with General Motors to increase production at a plant in Indiana. The federal government ordered 30,000 from them in April.

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Knott, of KKM Global, said his company was working with Ventec to distribute ventilators first to areas that have the greatest need. He said he recently has given a delivery schedule for the ventilators to Iowa officials, saying the state will get more every month until the order is complete.

“Iowa’s order is extremely important to us,” he said.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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All donations are tax-deductible.