Reports of old people being refused the dwindling supply of ventilators in the coronavirus catastrophe engulfing northern Italy are making high-net-worth types in the US panic, new report show.
At least 950,000 coronavirus patients in the US could need ventilators, according to the Society of Critical Care Medicine, but hospitals here have just 160,000. Between five to 10 companies in the world supply most of the planet’s breathing machines and they weren’t ready for this.
Forget Birkin bags, Botox shots or Brazilian butt lifts. The sought-after accessory for the ultra-rich these days is anything that guarantees them oxygen should they get hit by the coronavirus.
Brother, can you spare a ventilator? Or, how much is that nebulizer in the window? But how to get one? Especially the ultimate breathing machine, the ECMO.
President Donald Trump said testily at a recent press conference that he was ordering “a lot” of ventilators although he was vague on the details. The president has invoked the wartime Defense Production Act of 1950 to ramp up production of ventilators and hospital masks.
But it may be too little too late.
Thomas Herbert, a ventilator salesman in the New York area for 35 years, said that GE Healthcare, where he works, and some of the big global ventilator companies got caught without nearly enough stock when the virus hit.
Herbert said GE got 2,500 orders for ventilators for Italy and other parts of Europe and shipped them there before the outbreak caused demand in the US to kick in.
“You go where it’s worst first,” Herbert said. A spokesman for Medtronic in Minneapolis, one of the world’s biggest ventilator makers, said the company had “contributed” machines to China in February.
Daniele Macchini, a doctor at a hospital in Bergamo, Lombardy, the region in northern Italy with skyrocketing coronavirus cases wrote recently that the “tsunami” of 4,400 patients means “every ventilator becomes like gold.”
As a result, the wealthy in the US are calling both their doctors and ventilator manufacturers hoping to get a machine on demand, The Post reported. They’re even trolling the dark web to no avail as they face an uncomfortable truth: Money can’t buy something that’s not there.
Ventilators cost only about $35,000, peanuts to the elites. But because the US healthcare industry is about making money, no one heeded warnings going back more than a decade that the country should stockpile the machines.
“Hospitals in America are all about trying to be profitable, they’re not about being prepared for a disaster,” says Dr. Tim Kruse, who makes house calls in Aspen for his billionaire patients who are fretting about getting a ventilator if they need one. “Having a bunch of ventilators sitting around in storage affects their bottom line.”
Top “medical concierges” like Manhattan’s Dr. Ronald Primas (Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s rumored doctor) said they’ve had to tell some well-heeled patients that no, they can’t build their own ICUs in their Hamptons homes – never mind order a ventilator as if it were a pizza delivery from Doordash.
“There’s a lot of hysteria going on and I can understand their fears,” Dr. Primas said. “I tell them that not everyone will need a ventilator, that there are other airway devices that might be available but a lot of my patients are still scared.”
People are even calling engineers feverishly working on 3-D printed ventilators — but no dice.
Clarence Graansma, a Canadian biomedical technologist at Qidni Labs in Ontario, is part of a global group working on open-source makeshift ventilator designed to be constructed with, say, vacuum cleaner motors, if supply chains become totally shot.
“I’ve gotten calls from people with obviously a lot of money saying, please make me one,” Graansma said. “I say no. That’s not why I’m doing this. We’re trying to rush these ideas out for all the people in crisis. When you’re very sick, your lungs get really stiff. Those are the people who need us.”
Some of the most hopeful reports come from smaller ventilator companies like Ventec Life Systems in Seattle; or Vyaire, which has a manufacturing plant in Palm Springs.
Ventec’s Chris Kiple has become a media darling over the last week as he works the phones from 5 a.m. to midnight getting help to build the company’s unique all-in-one multi-function ventilators.
“The government and hospitals are calling nonstop,” said a spokesman for Kiple. “We just hope we can get enough out there to help people.”