ECMO machine shortages becoming more common as COVID-19 cases in Tennessee surge

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — As COVID-19 cases surge in Tennessee, in part due to the Delta variant, the makeup of intensive care units across the state looks different than it did early on in the pandemic. The patients are younger and less likely to be vaccinated.

Dr. Jason Martin, a critical care physician in Sumner County, has noticed this change in demographics, “It’s not uncommon to have an ICU with 20-year-old people in it, which is really unusual as compared to the last time. Certainly, it’s more common to have folks in their 30s and 40s right now.”

Another thing that has changed is how the sickest COVID patients are treated. ECMO, or Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, machines are in high demand as younger patients filter into area hospitals. Treatment with an ECMO machine is the last resort after a ventilator fails.

ECMO machines are similar to the heart-lung bypass machine used in open-heart surgery. This machine pumps and oxygenates a patient’s blood outside the body while also removing carbon dioxide, allowing the heart and lungs to rest.

According to Dr. Martin, finding an ECMO machine and the staff to run it is challenging, “ECMO requires a lot of specialty care. It requires a large center, it requires a lot of intensive nursing and specialists to run the machine. And so that is a finite resource right now when we have so many patients who are suffering from respiratory failure as the Delta variant is sort of sweeping the state.”

Dr. Martin has had to look as far as Ohio to get ECMO treatment for a patient suffering from COVID-19 since large hospitals are more likely to have this type of machine and the staff necessary to operate it.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has ECMO machines and the staff, but not every patient can go through this intense treatment, according to Dr. Todd Rice, the Medical Director of the Medical Intensive Care Unit at VUMC.

“Most of the patients that are are good candidates for ECMO tend to be younger patients, as we’ve seen more and more COVID in the younger population. And we’ve seen more and more sick younger patients, we’ve had more referrals for ECMO, because the patients are younger,” said Dr. Rice.

Dr. Rice also says that there is no guarantee that ECMO will work, “Our mortality rate is still 30 or 40%, for the patients that we put on ECMO. And in general, those are younger patients.” Even those that survive are looking at months of therapy to get back to normal.

Right now, the best way to avoid hospitalization and serious illness is by getting vaccinated for COVID-19.

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