Iowa ventilator stockpile sat idle during worst of pandemic

By: - December 6, 2021 4:18 pm

The state purchased 500 of Ventec Life Systems’ VOCSN multi-function ventilators, which provide ventilation, oxygen, cough assistance, suction and nebulization. (Photo courtesy of Ventec Life Systems)

Iowa spent $10.3 million acquiring 500 ventilators before the worst months of the coronavirus pandemic when hospitalizations and deaths peaked late last year, but just nine of the breathing apparatuses were distributed to hospitals at that time.

“Hospitals have been aware of the availability of these ventilators since they were purchased,” said Sarah Ekstrand, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Public Health. “The goal of the state’s pandemic response has always been to protect the health of Iowans and to preserve our health care resources. The ventilators were purchased in support of that goal. The early phase of the pandemic was a time of much uncertainty and supply constraint concerns.”

The state ordered the ventilators in March 2020, the same month the first COVID-19 cases were identified in Iowa. By the time the devices arrived in late summer, hospitals had already scrambled to acquire ventilators during the first surge in hospitalizations that spring.

Unity Point in Sioux City, for example, obtained additional ventilators from other hospitals and the Iowa National Guard, said Leah McInerney, a spokesperson for Unity Point.

“These requests were made prior to the state of Iowa acquiring their additional supply of ventilators,” McInerney said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed Iowa for the full cost of the ventilators, Ekstrand said.

The portable devices cost more than $20,000 each apiece and are manufactured by Ventec Life Systems in Washington state. They are capable of sustaining a patient’s ability to breathe with a tube down the person’s throat, but they also offer other, less invasive breathing assistance. The devices are larger than a basketball and weigh about 18 pounds.

Early this year, as hospitalizations waned, state officials created an online survey to offer the remaining 491 ventilators to hospitals and certain emergency medical services providers. By November, slightly more than half of the ventilators had been distributed to about 60 different health care providers.

“It helps me sleep at night,” said Suzanne Cooner, the chief executive of Audubon County Memorial Hospital, which received two of the ventilators. “It helps us keep people alive.”

She said the hospital already had three ventilators that are primarily used for non-emergency procedures such as scheduled surgeries. The hospital hasn’t used the new ventilators — in part because the county’s infection rates have been comparatively low — but infections in the Upper Midwest have been accelerating for weeks, and the threat posed by the omicron variant looms.

The Mason City Fire Department, which is also the local ambulance service, regularly uses the three ventilators it received late this summer from the state to provide non-invasive assistance to COVID-19 patients and others who are short of breath.

Previously, the department used its sole ventilator to transport critically ill patients between hospitals, said Carl Ginapp, the department’s deputy chief who directs the ambulance service. Now, medics can give advanced breathing assistance during all calls for help.

“It’s been very, very useful for keeping people from having to be intubated” after they arrive at a hospital, Ginapp said.

The state issued 269 ventilators to the following health care providers:

Monroe County Hospital, Albia — 4
Mary Greeley Medical Center, Ames — 1
Audubon County Memorial Hospital, Audubon — 2
Bondurant Emergency Services, Bondurant — 3
Hancock County Health System, Britt — 3
Des Moines County, Burlington — 1
St. Anthony Regional Hospital, Carroll — 2
Mercy Cedar Rapids, Cedar Rapids — 10
Area Ambulance, Cedar Rapids — 17
Center Point Ambulance, Center Point — 2
Centerville Fire Department, Centerville — 3
MercyOne – Centerville, Centerville — 4
Clarence Ambulance, Clarence — 2
Clinton County EMA, Clinton — 10
Methodist Jennie Edmunson, Council Bluffs — 5
MEDIC EMS, Davenport — 25
Scott County, Davenport — 6
Select Specialty Hospital, Davenport — 2
Delaware Township, Des Moines — 2
MercyOne – Des Moines, Des Moines — 30
Lee County EMS, Donnellson — 7
Paramount EMS, Dubuque — 10
Bi-County Ambulance, Dyersville — 2
Earlville Fire Department, Earlville — 1
Edgewood Ambulance Service, Edgewood — 2
Eldora Ambulance, Eldora — 3
Emmet County, Estherville — 1
Guthrie County Hospital, Guthrie Center — 2
Franklin General EMS, Hampton — 2
Franklin General Hospital, Hampton — 2
Myrtue Medical Center, Harlan — 1
Hawarden Regional Hospital, Hawarden — 2
Humboldt County Memorial Hospital, Humboldt — 2
Care Ambulance, Iowa City — 6
Hansen Family Hospital, Iowa Falls — 3
Johnson County EMA, Iowa City — 12
Blessing Health, Keokuk — 2
Van Buren County Ambulance, Keosauqua — 2
Van Buren County Hospital, Keosauqua — 2
Knoxville Hospital & Clinic, Knoxville — 1
Decatur County Hospital, Leon — 2
Manning Regional Healthcare, Manning — 1
Mason City Fire Department, Mason City — 3
Monroe Fire & Rescue, Monroe — 2
Muscatine Fire Department, Muscatine — 5
Story County Medical, Nevada — 2
Bennet Volunteer Ambulance, New Liberty — 1
Norwalk Fire Department, Norwalk — 2
Burgess Health Center, Onawa — 3
Orange City Area Health System, Orange City — 1
Ottumwa Regional Health Center, Ottumwa — 6
Ottumwa Regional MICS, Ottumwa — 4
Dallas County EMS, Perry — 4
Dallas County Hospital, Perry — 2
Pleasantville Emergency Services, Pleasantville — 2
Shenandoah Medical Center, Shenandoah — 3
Osceola County Ambulance, Sibley — 6
Buena Vista County, Storm Lake — 1
Stuart Rescue, Stuart — 2
North Benton Ambulance, Vinton — 2
Veterans Memorial Hospital, Waukon — 1
Waverly Health Center, Waverly — 1
Southeast Iowa Regional Medical Center, West Burlington — 4
West Des Moines EMS, West Des Moines — 10

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.