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Hopkins working on device so coronavirus patients could share limited ventilators

Engineers at Johns Hopkins University are working on a 3D-printed device than can be used to make one ventilator able to aid multiple coronavirus patients.

The splitter is a response to shortages across the country of the ventilators, critical to helping the sickest patients breathe as their bodies fight the respiratory disease known as COVID-19, said Sung Hoon Kang, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Hopkins’ Whiting School of Engineering who is leading a team of engineers and medical specialists.

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“While this is feasible, it must be safe for all the patients,” he said. “That means ensuring that each patient gets the care they need, without shortchanging anyone. This is what we set out to create.”

More than 54,500 ventilators could be needed at peak use in mid-April, according to an estimate from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. In Maryland, more than 1,800 will be needed at peak use, the institute estimated.

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Maryland Health Secretary Robert Neall told state lawmakers last week that the state had about 1,040, but “I would sleep a lot better at night if we had twice that many. We’re doing everything we can to acquire them whenever and wherever we can.”

The Hopkins team has already produced a prototype they hope is easy to make and use in urgent situations. Testing on model lungs is expected in coming weeks, and then the device will require approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The focus is on ensuring the final product is safe, specifically that the equipment doesn’t allow infections to spread among patients or short-change patients of oxygen, which are concerns that have been raised by medical workers, the Hopkins designers said.

Kang said the design includes a filter to prevent cross-contamination among patients, whose conditions could worsen if further exposed to the virus. It also includes an air-flow controller and flow meters so air can be adjusted for each patient according to need.

That precise air flow will be critical to ensure the ventilators don’t cause further harm in patients in various stages of lung failure, said Julie Caffrey, assistant professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Johns Hopkins Medicine and a team member.

She said past efforts to share ventilators, such as on victims of the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, aimed only at stabilizing patients

“It’s very important that when we split a ventilator,” she said, "we can still set the ventilator to that specific patient.”

Once it is approved by the FDA, the team plans to publish their design for anyone to use.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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