Did Ventilators Kill People During COVID-19?
Making decisions about early intubation based on uncertain evidence
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a lot of chaos. Hospitals were suddenly faced with thousands of people who were very sick with a completely new disease. Instead of the usual decision-making, with decades of research to fall back on, a lot of doctors were forced to do what they thought was best and hope that their opinions worked out well.
This has led to many controversies. Hydroxychloroquine, which was a hopeful candidate as an effective medication for COVID-19, turned out to be likely harmful instead. It’s perhaps unsurprising that, faced with a new disease and almost no information, some of the things we tried early on in the pandemic weren’t entirely beneficial.
One issue that has remained controversial since early in 2020 is mechanical ventilation, a type of therapy where a machine — a ventilator — helps you breathe. Even now, there are many people online who maintain that doctors in the early days of COVID-19 were completely misusing ventilators, and that this caused a great deal of harm. The idea is that if doctors had just avoided intubating people — the process used in mechanical ventilation to get a tube into a person’s airway — we could have prevented a huge loss of life in the initial COVID-19 waves.
Unfortunately, the evidence doesn’t support this assertion in the slightest. It seems that the early use of ventilators had little, if any, impact on the mortality of people who were very sick with COVID-19.
Let’s look at the data.
It’s worth taking a minute to think about the subject here. When the pandemic was first raging, a number of people suggested that doctors who were faced with patients experiencing…