Get all the latest news on coronavirus and more delivered daily to your inbox. Sign up here.
JACKSON, Miss. – Respiratory failure associated with COVID-19 has sent the demand for ventilators soaring across the country. In Mississippi, an overwhelming surge of coronavirus patients hasn’t been as issue, by large, for hospitals around the state. But state and medical officials are preparing for the worst.
At Mississippi State University, electrical engineer David Wallace and more than a dozen other team members had been embroiled in their own fight against coronavirus. Wallace, who manages MSU’s High Voltage Lab, had taken the lead on improving 550 of the state’s battery-powered ventilators so they could be used in the state’s response against coronavirus.
The electrical engineer said he had received a call from the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning. They wanted to know if Wallace could come up with a way to convert the ventilators to operate off a more sustained power source.
Wallace said battery power would not be suitable amid a pandemic.
“The problem with it is, the battery is gone, lasting approximately 48 hours,” Wallace said. “And they’re replacing batteries all the time.”
He sat and thought about it. Roughly 45 minutes later, Wallace and his team had come up with a solution for the ventilators. They had decided on converting the ventilators from battery power to AC power.
“We quickly came up with a plan and put it into action,” he said. “We developed a little scenario to put a switch and power break that we could attach inside these [ventilators]. So now you can plug into the wall and run off AC voltage or battery power.”
Splitting the 550 ventilators between the lab and a private company, the team of electrical engineers power-drilled and soldered their way through the conversions needed to be made on the majority of the life-saving machines in two days. The few that remained had to be used on patients, Wallace said.
A graduate student in Mississippi State University’s High Voltage Lab works on converting a battery-powered ventilator to AC power. The ventilator is one of 550 that are being deployed in Mississippi’s coronavirus response. (David Wallace)
If recent projections are correct, the ventilators could be critical in Mississippi. According to the Society of Critical Care Medicine, around 960,000 in the U.S. may need to be treated with a ventilator during the pandemic.
However, the organization estimated there was fewer than 200,000 ventilators in the entire country, not counting those currently in production.
State officials have petitioned the federal government for additional resources.
In the meantime, Dr. Charles Robertson, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, wasn’t waiting around for ventilators to come to him. Instead, the doctor started producing his own makeshift ventilators to use in the event of a shortage. Using items bought from the hardware store, like a hose and a lamp timer, Robertson was able to construct 170 makeshift ventilators he created to match UMMC’s cache of 150 ventilators.
Dr. Charles Robertson, assistant professor of anesthesiology, holds up a ventilator built from garden hose and other readily available parts. The ventilators are meant for use only if UMMC exhausts other ventilator options. (University of Mississippi Medical Center)
“The overall cost of the parts is about $50,” Robertson said a demonstration open to reporters. “With a crew that knows what they’re doing, it probably takes between 20 and 30 minutes to make one. So, a group of three or four people can turn out about 50 to 100 of these a day.”
Robertson said the ventilators would only be used in “extreme use situations during a pandemic” if patients were on the brink of dying.
The hospital said it was, currently, seeking federal approval for “compassionate use.” That would give medical center the authority to use the makeshift ventilators as approved medical devices, in the case it needed to.
“We have filed for an Emergency Use Authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who have indicated their interest in these ventilators,” Dr. Richard Summers, associate vice chancellor for research, said. “I think this effort represents the independent ‘can do’ attitude and ingenuity of our physicians and scientists to confront this crisis in the service of the people of Mississippi.”
Robertson said he had hoped his creation would not only help save lives in Mississippi, but in communities around the world in a time of crisis.
“This is something that we can be independent with here and other communities around the nation and the world, should be able to be independent with also; rapidly building emergency ventilators, if they’re needed.”
As Wallace prepared to finish up the final ventilators that needed to be converted, he said what he and many others were doing was the embodiment of the American spirit that would get us through the fight with the coronavirus.
“The way I like to look at it,” he said. “We do what it takes to help our fellow man.”