US hospitals have dramatically increased their orders of key drugs required by patients on ventilators, as New York state became the new epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak with a death toll exceeding Hubei province.
The potential shortages of 13 drugs could make it harder for physicians to place coronavirus patients on the devices to help them breathe, even if the US government manages to buy, borrow or manufacture the tens of thousands more ventilators that it needs.
Demand for the drugs that sedate patients to help them cope with the breathing tubes soared this month, according to data from Vizient, a healthcare services company that works with half of US hospitals.
As orders have increased, the proportion that have been fulfilled has dropped, implying that wholesalers do not have enough supplies to meet demand.
Dan Kistner, group senior vice-president, pharmacy solutions at Vizient, said orders not being completely fulfilled showed that the US was “spiralling toward a major shortage of the medications necessary for patients who require a ventilator”.
“What we are seeing now is some products that are in a shortage and others that are in a very tight market,” he said.
There was a 51 per cent increase in demand for sedatives and anaesthetics in March, compared to the same period in January, before the coronavirus pandemic hit the US. Now, only 63 per cent of these orders have been fulfilled. For analgesics, a kind of painkiller, demand rose by 67 per cent. Orders for neuromuscular blockers, which relax muscles, rose 39 per cent.
The hunt for ventilators has become core to every country’s preparation for the coronavirus pandemic, as many of the hospitalised patients need help breathing — and the length of time they spend on the machines is far longer than the average intensive care patient.
Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, said last week that what he needed was “ventilators, ventilators, ventilators”. He hit back at accusations that he was overestimating the state’s need of up to 40,000 ventilators, saying on Tuesday that at $25,000 each, he would not be spending New York’s money on them if they were not necessary.
The surge in demand for these drugs comes after hospitals panic-bought hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, antimalarials that some, including US president Donald Trump, had touted as potential treatments for Covid-19, despite scant evidence.
Wholesale distributors began rationing the drugs and many state pharmacy boards have put in place restrictions to prioritise patients already taking them for conditions such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Hospitals have also been stocking up on inhalers, like those used by asthma sufferers, because of concerns about putting infectious patients on devices called nebulisers, which could spread the disease to nearby patients or staff.
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