Editorials

Washington needs ventilators to prevent Italy-like coronavirus disaster. Could Boeing help?

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The rallying cry of the American coronavirus epidemic, “We’re all in this together,” is being put to the test as states and regions appeal for their fair share of federal emergency resources.

This tension was on display this weekend as President Trump, after saying he planned to send a 1,000-bed Navy hospital ship to the Seattle area, later announced he was redirecting it to Southern California. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee rightly expressed disappointment; coronavirus in our state has now crept past 2,200 confirmed cases and killed 110 people — 400 more cases than California and triple the death toll as of Monday afternoon.

Inslee noted the loss of the Mercy ship will be offset by planned construction of federal field hospitals in the region. Whether by land or sea, what matters is that Washington gets additional medical support.

But there’s one crucial weapon in the war against COVID-19 for which Washington appears alarmingly ill-equipped compared to much of the country: hospital ventilators. State leaders won’t breathe easy until the shortage of respiratory machines for potential critical-care patients is reversed.

A bipartisan letter of Pacific Northwest solidarity, sent Friday by 17 members of Congress to Vice President Mike Pence, is a good start. It calls for a “collective national manufacturing goal” and for more ventilators to be sent to the Northwest to prevent an Italy-like catastrophe.

“Our hospitals across the region have grown more concerned that in a short time they will be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients as intensive care unit capacity is reached,” the Democratic and Republican representatives from Washington, Oregon and Idaho wrote to Pence, the White House’s pandemic point man.

Compounding the problem is that Washington, which trails only New York and New Jersey in coronavirus cases, is near the bottom nationally on ventilator supply, according to the most recent data available. While the median number of ventilators across the country is 20.5 per 1,000 people, Washington and Oregon have only 13 per 1,000 and Idaho is last in the U.S. at 12 per 1,000.

The data, collected by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the American Association for Respiratory Care, is 10 years old. The fact that we’re relying on an outdated inventory of life-saving equipment is just one sign of America’s woeful unpreparedness for the crisis now engulfing us.

But it’s the only data we have, and the Washington Hospital Association agrees that the state’s ventilator supply is “critically low.”

So far, Trump’s response has been unsatisfactory. “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves,” he said in a conference call with US governors last week.

They are trying, Mr. President, with growing urgency. But your administration controls the strategic national stockpile of hospital supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders and healthcare workers. You also have authority to ramp up private manufacturing through the Defense Production Act you invoked last week.

Tremendous resolve, creativity and adaptability are sorely needed right now, from our government as well as from private industry. US automakers, which are shutting down assembly lines during the COVID-19 outbreak, are already offering logistical advice to ventilator companies and might start producing the equipment themselves.

Could Boeing do the same? It might seem like a crazy notion after the Seattle-area aerospace company announced Monday it’s suspending factory operations. But some observers have drawn parallels between the coronavirus emergency and World War II, and Boeing helped turn the tide in the 1940s with its historic wartime assembly-line output.

Boeing just might be able to help its home state, which has supported the company, through good times and bad, for more than 100 years.

By whatever means available, Washington needs to be assured a sufficient supply of ventilators, PPEs and other provisions for the weeks and months ahead.

Tacoma Fire Chief Tory Green said it well during his coronavirus briefing to the City Council last week: “Since the Seattle region, including Tacoma, has been hit so hard, we should arguably be given a little more priority in distribution of these resources.”

Securing ventilators should be one of those priorities, before life-or-death triage decisions have to be made in hospital hallways.

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