Grounded Planes Might Save Severe COVID-19 Patients From Death

Pressurized planes could force oxygen into the bloodstreams of severe COVID-19 patients on medical ventilators, most of whom will otherwise die, according to a study.
Brad Bergan
Image formatted to fit. anouchka / iStock

Grounded planes and other aircraft converted into field hospitals might reduce the high mortality rates of severe COVID-19 patients in need of mechanical ventilation — the majority of whom do not survive — according to a new study published on April 22, reports Engadget.


Grounded planes could save COVID-19 patients

In the peer-reviewed study, researchers looked at 5,700 patients in or around New York City and found that patients on ventilators have an 88.1% mortality rate. But correlation isn't causation, as most of those people had pre-existing conditions. Despite this, the number of patients who don't make it post-ventilator stage is deeply concerning.

Dr. Daniel Reynolds is a founder of Lungfish Dive Systems — a Cambridge, UK-based company and producer of scuba gear. Of the death-toll related to mechanical ventilator use, Reynolds said: "The question, for me, was that we haven't run out of ventilators, so why are all these people dead?" After corroborating with medical professionals, he thinks the problem isn't COVID-19 itself, but "organ failure through chronic hypoxia." Lack of oxygen in the bloodstream causes people's bodies to slowly suffocate to death in mere days.

The problem is compounded by Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) — the inflammation of the lungs — which makes breathing hard. "Their lungs are compromised to the extent that, even with a ventilator on pure oxygen breathing for them, it's impossible to get enough oxygen." Reynolds added that the solution isn't more ventilation, but to make it easier for patients suffering from respiratory distress. As an expert in diving and diving equipment, the clear answer is a hyperbaric chamber.

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Hyperbaric planes may help saturate blood with oxygen

A hyperbaric chamber raises the air pressure outside the human body, and this is a method used to treat breathing-related conditions. Greater air pressure makes it easier to breathe because the air forces itself into the lungs. Additionally, oxygen is more soluble at higher pressures, which makes gives every breath more of a potent way of oxygenating the bloodstream. With higher levels of oxygetation, according to Mayo Clinic, the body can better "promote healing and fight infection."

"Hyperbaric oxygen [therapy] is known to reduce inflammation," said Dr. Reynolds, which might also minimize the effects of ARDS. Sadly, hyperbaric chambers are uncommon and are generally only used in very specific medical and diving-related situations. "There are not anywhere near enough hyperbaric chambers to cope with thousands of patients," said Dr. Reynolds. It's not realistic to instantly mass-produce the requisite number of these chambers, so Reynolds and his team went hunting for alternatives.

This is where the grounded aircraft entered the equation.

When a plane flies, it soars to heights where the air is extra-thin, and where air pressure is far weaker than we conventionally feel at sea level. This means it's extremely hard for a person to breathe at high altitudes (or even on mountains, like Everest), so planes are pressurized to simulate near-sea-level conditions.

Since the planes aren't in use, are tailor-made to adjust their internal pressure and possess oxygen routing capabilities, it's not crazy to think they can supply the greater air pressure severe patients of COVID-19 and ARDS need.

We have created an interactive page to demonstrate engineers’ noble efforts against COVID-19 across the world. If you are working on a new technology or producing any equipment in the fight against COVID-19, please send your project to us to be featured.

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