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Viable ventilators

When a ventilator shortage worried the nation, the Lab stepped up with a couple inventive solutions
February 1, 2021


  • Stacy Baker
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In February 2020, a surge of COVID-19 patients at hospitals across the country led to the realization that the United States might not have enough ventilators—machines that help people breathe—to keep severely ill patients alive. This problem prompted some innovative responses from the Laboratory.

Two groups of engineers wondered if they could build their own ventilators using locally sourced supplies. One group purchased parts from hardware and car supply stores in Los Alamos, took them back to someone’s garage, and fashioned them into a ventilator. Another team partnered with health experts from Presbyterian Health Services to build a ventilator using plumbing from a hardware store. As the projects progressed, the engineers made improvements as they assessed how well the ventilators worked on simulated lungs. A ventilator made from hardware store parts.

Typical ventilators deliver to patients regularly timed spurts of oxygen, which can be unnatural for someone whose breathing is labored or erratic. So, Lab engineers modified one of their ventilators to deliver oxygen in response to a patient’s natural pace of breath. Then they added pulsed aerosols into the oxygen delivery system in hopes that the aerosols would break down mucus in the lungs of infected patients.

“What we’re doing is essentially transforming a machine meant to keep people alive into a potential treatment,” says associate Laboratory director J. Patrick Fitch, who’s leading the Lab’s coronavirus response. The new ventilator is now a joint project with Idaho National Laboratory.

A ventilator made from hardware store parts.

Predicting the need for ventilators

Data analyst Paolo Patelli and computational scientist Nidhi Parikh viewed the ventilator shortage as a supply and demand problem— one for which they had a solution.

“Our idea was to create a program that policymakers could use that took stock of how much equipment they had and what equipment they would need, based on the virus’ spread,” Parikh says.

The program they developed accounts for a state’s supply of ventilators, as well as the supply of neighboring states. It uses a model that predicts the future infection rate of that state, and then measures how many infected people will potentially end up in a hospital with need of a ventilator. If there aren’t enough ventilators on hand during the projected COVID-19 outbreak in one location, the program can direct policymakers to regions of the country with a surplus.

“Since then,” Parikh says, “we’ve expanded the program to include personal protective equipment, medications, and almost anything a hospital needs to help COVID-19 patients.”