Coronavirus: Here's why respirators, intubation are needed to treat COVID-19

SAN FRANCISCO -- By now you have heard about the huge demand for ventilators to help patients infected with COVID-19. But why are they needed and how are they used? That's the question we posed to Dr. Alok Patel, part of the ABC7 team of coronavirus experts.

When you are infected with coronavirus, you develop is the disease COVID-19, an acute respiratory disorder that can cause your lungs to fail.

Your lungs bring in the oxygen that your body needs to run and expel the carbon dioxide you create.

When coronavirus attacks the cells that line your throat and lungs, it makes it hard for your lungs to do their job.

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Patients who can no longer breathe on their own require intubation.

"Intubation is the process of actually inserting a breathing tube into someone mouth," said Dr. Patel.

That tube is hooked up to one of those ventilators you keep hearing so much about.

"Intubation can protect someone's airway or secure their airway," said Dr. Patel. "What are you intubated with? When you are intubated, there is a tube that goes inside someone's mouth. This is called the endotracheal tube, because it goes in your trachea."

Yep, right down your throat.

"This tube then connects a very complicated advanced machine, a mechanical ventilator," said Dr. Patel.

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Just one patient takes a team to connect to that mechanical respirator. Doctors, nurses and a respiratory therapist are all involved.

"Before they even think about putting down a tube, they need to give the patient medication to sedate and relax the muscles," said Dr. Patel. "Because if you think about it, if you were awake and somebody was trying to put a tube down your throat, you would probably gag and pull it out."

Those mechanical ventilators then take over, doing your breathing for you.

"A mechanical ventilator can control a lot of different variables," said Dr. Patel. "It can control the amount of the volume of air you are getting through the tube, it can control the rate of the breaths you are getting."

He adds, "You are probably thinking now that this is really complicated, and it is. That is why it takes such a team to effectively ventilate these patients."

Patients require constant monitoring, that's part of the reason so many hospitals struggling to keep up staffing to meet the demands of the coronavirus pandemic.

Intubation doesn't come without risks.

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"Everything from infections to the risk that they won't be able to breathe on their own when they take the tube out," said Dr. Patel.

The best way to avoid needing intubation or being hooked up to a ventilator? Follow the current shelter-in-place orders, keep your distance and don't forget to wash your hands.

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