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Turning Sleep Apnea Machines Into Ventilators

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

For most, COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) is an advanced version of the flu. Many people infected with the virus experience a cough, fever, and possibly a sore throat. These symptoms usually fade within a week or so. It’s not fun, but it’s manageable. 


But some people are more at risk for developing a severe case of the virus–particularly the elderly, the immunocompromised, and those with chronic medical conditions. Those who fall into an at-risk category have a far more difficult time recovering from the virus. Some may even need to be hospitalized and hooked up to ventilators to assist them in breathing properly.


The problem is that healthcare systems have become overwhelmed with sick patients in need of ventilators. Due to this sudden influx of patients, ventilators are in critically short supply. But engineers at UC Berkeley are working with emergency room doctors to come up with a solution: Converting sleep apnea machines into life-saving ventilators.

According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and 8 to 10 million of those rely on CPAP machines. However, a large number of these machines are unused, simply because they’re uncomfortable to use daily. Grace O’Connell, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, wants to repurpose the unused CPAP machines to act as ventilators for hospitalized COVID-19 patients.


“Tens of thousands of COVID-19 patients in this country and around the world will need respiratory support in the coming weeks and months,” said O’Connell.

“We believe that using sleep apnea machines is a viable solution for non-ICU patients. This way, higher-grade ventilators can be reserved for patients with more advanced stages of respiratory disease.”


The team of engineers and doctors figured out a way to modify CPAP sleep apnea machines to supply COVID-19 patients with filtered, oxygenated air, allowing them to breathe normally. This solution, if implemented in hospitals, could save lives. However, it’s not effective enough to replace ventilators for those with serious cases of the virus.

“Our solution could be used for those patients who need support for mild to moderate respiratory symptoms, saving the ventilators for ICU patients who are experiencing acute respiratory distress,” said O’Connell.


The FDA also seems to consider this method a viable option. They recently approved the use of CPAP machines as ventilators for COVID-19 patients, as long as the patient is monitored. The parts used to modify the machines were approved as well. Encouraged by these green lights, researchers say this alternative method of ventilation could “potentially be deployed quickly.” 


The team has already started contacting government officials in order to set up a partnership between the FDA, doctors, and manufacturers and begin rolling out the modified machines. They’re also urging the public to donate any unused sleep apnea machines they might have. 


This hopeful new development, if deployed in time, will be a lifesaver for many.

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