COVID patients on ECMO machines reach record 52, passing ‘blackest’ prediction

Each device requires a team of at least 4, stretching hospital resources to limit

Illustrative: Medical staff in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Safed, on February 4, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Illustrative: Medical staff in the coronavirus ward of Ziv Medical Center in the northern Israeli city of Safed, on February 4, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The coronavirus outbreak has pushed the number of patients in the country connected to extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machines to a record 52, according to the Israeli Medical Association, surpassing the worst predictions for the virus outbreak.

Already overstretched hospitals are struggling to find enough staff to be able to connect more patients to the life-saving devices, the chair of the IMA’s ECMO division warned.

Unlike ventilators that just assist breathing, ECMO machines provide cardiac and respiratory assistance by oxygenating a patient’s blood outside of the body and are used for the most critically ill.

Yigal Kassif, who also heads ECMO services at Sheba Medical Center, told the Ynet website there are 45 coronavirus patients on the machines and another seven who have other ailments.

He said an upper limit of 50 patients on ECMO “played a starring role in the blackest predications at the start of the pandemic,” and was the reason that medical officials pressured the Health Ministry to purchase 30 ECMO machines.

Kassif said he spends a lot of time moving ECMO machines between hospitals where staff are struggling to accommodate even another patient or two.

“Really, really, we can’t save many more,” he warned. “Those involved very much hope and pray that we will manage to not become North Italy or New York in the first wave,” he said, referring to locations where hospitals’ serious cases outnumbered resources to treat them, with fatal results.

Illustrative: A nurse monitors an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine connected to a patient at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, May 8, 2020. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Citing Health Ministry data, the report said there are 70 machines in the country in total, but each one requires two nurses, a technician, and a doctor.

The machines are not evenly spread out across the country, with larger hospitals tending to have more and some smaller medical centers not having any machines at all.

Earlier in the week, Health Ministry sources said that if the resource situation gets worse there will be a need to establish ethics committees to chose who lives and who dies, Ynet reported.

In general, recent days have seen the number of serious cases across the country drop somewhat, dipping below 1,000 for the first time in many weeks.

Israel has struggled to bring down infection rates during a third wave of coronavirus cases, despite a national lockdown in its fifth week and a mass inoculation program that has already given vaccine shots to over a quarter of the population. New, highly infectious coonavirus mutations have been blamed for keeping daily new cases in the thousands.

Last week, Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan said that “the new mutations cause much more serious illness and affect younger people,” adding that most of those connected to ECMO machines are in their forties and fifties, compared to the previous waves when most were in their sixties.

Since the start of the virus outbreak early last year, 721,759 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in Israel, according to Health Ministry figures released Saturday.

There are 60,956 active cases and 5,340 people have died from COVID-19 in the country.

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