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New Data Shows That Patients On Ventilators Are Likely To Survive


And now a bit of hopeful health news about COVID-19 - early studies found very high death rates for patients on ventilators. But now some major medical centers are reporting more positive results. NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: COVID-19 has given ventilators a bad reputation. And Dr. Colin Cooke, a critical care specialist at the University of Michigan, says that's unfortunate.

COLIN COOKE: It's always disheartening to know that some people are out there saying, if you end up on a ventilator, it's a death sentence, which is not what we're experiencing. And I don't think it's what the data are showing.

HAMILTON: Cooke is especially concerned by a study of some New York hospitals that found a mortality rate of 88%. He says that figure was misleading because the analysis included only patients who had either died or been discharged.

COOKE: And so folks who actually in the midst of fighting their illness were not being included in this statistic of patients who are still alive.

HAMILTON: Cooke says many of those patients are likely to survive.

COOKE: We think that mortality for folks that end up on the ventilator with COVID is going to end up being somewhere between probably 25% up to maybe 50%, somewhere in that range.

HAMILTON: Scary but hardly a death sentence.

There's also encouraging data from some other New York hospitals, including Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Montefiore serves a population with low incomes and high rates of diabetes, obesity and other health problems. And in April, the medical center faced an onslaught of very sick COVID-19 patients. Dr. Michelle Gong is the chief of Critical Care Medicine.

MICHELLE GONG: The number of patients with critical care needs was more than triple the normal levels.

HAMILTON: Regular hospital wards became ICUs. Critical care teams did extra shifts. And heart doctors were caring for lung patients. Gong says weeks later, it's still too soon to calculate mortality rates precisely.

GONG: We still have large number of patients on mechanical ventilation in our intensive care unit. So the outcomes of those patients are still uncertain.

HAMILTON: But so far, she says, Montefiore's ICU teams appear to be saving more patients than they are losing. Dr. Todd Rice, who directs the medical intensive care unit at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, says that would be a good result for a hospital facing so many challenges.

TODD RICE: They were having to care for patients in makeshift ICUs or places that were not their normal ICUs by doctors that weren't their normal ICU doctors. And I think that probably results in some worse outcomes.

HAMILTON: Rice says, so far, Vanderbilt has been able to keep COVID patients on ventilators in existing ICUs with experienced intensive care teams. And he says the results are promising.

RICE: Our mortality is in the mid to high 20% range.

HAMILTON: That's not much higher than the rate for other ICU patients with severe lung infections. And Rice says that suggests COVID-19 is less deadly than the early numbers suggested.

RICE: I think overall these mortality rates are going to be higher than we're used to seeing but not dramatically higher.

HAMILTON: Preliminary data from Emory University in Atlanta supports that prediction. The mortality rate among the 165 COVID patients placed on a ventilator was less than 30%. And unlike the New York study, only a few patients were still on a ventilator when the data were collected.

Dr. Craig Coopersmith directs the Critical Care Center at Emory. He says they plan carefully for the arrival of COVID patients, but the care followed their usual protocols.

CRAIG COOPERSMITH: There's no secret magic that can't be replicated in other places. And I do believe that we will see a global trend towards better outcomes on the ventilator and in the intensive care unit.

HAMILTON: And Coopersmith says outcomes in the U.S. are improving as doctors gain more experience with COVID-19.

COOPERSMITH: It's still going to be a devastating disease but a more manageable devastating disease.

HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience and health risks.