KEVIN LEININGER: With ventilators still scarce, local firm working on next best thing

Dr. Fred Vandeman, a retired interventional radiologist who worked at Lutheran Hospital for 27 years with Summit Radiology, helped develop the "PhoenixAir." (Courtesy photo)
Traditional ventilators are in short supply as America copes with COVID-19. (AP photo)
Scott Mentzer
Kevin Leininger

About 375,000 Americans have contracted COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and between 10 percent and 25 percent of them eventually will need help to breathe. Meanwhile, there are about 173,000 ventilators in the country, but Harvard Medical School has predicted the number of people needing one could be 31 times greater.

But what if most of those breathing-impaired patients could be treated with a lower-cost alternative that would conserve ventilators and medical staff for the 5 percent of COVID-19 sufferers who develop acute respiratory distress syndrome?

A Fort Wayne company has been working on that very thing, and following this week’s successful prototype test says it is nearly ready to begin production and, just maybe, saving lives.

“We’re not pretending this is a replacement for a ventilator,” Phoenix America Vice President of Sales and Operational Planning Scott Mentzer said in reference to “PhoenixAir” — a product that essentially adds a mechanized pump to a traditional bag mask. But as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pointed out, even when effective the masks are “not an acceptable option” because somebody has to manually pump them around the clock.

In contrast, Mentzer said one technician could monitor up to 50 PhoenixAir units, which at an estimated cost of $1,500 each would be up to 95 percent less expensive than a mechanical ventilator. If the Food and Drug Administration grants emergency authorization, he added, “We could scale up in two to three weeks and make 2,000 to 3,000 per week.”

Because COVID-19 can affect oxygen levels in the lungs, some form of breathing assistance is often needed. But because use of mechanical ventilators require patients to be anesthetized and intubated — a breathing tube is inserted down the throat — they can also produce harmful side effects. The PhoenixAir can accommodate a tube or a mask; Mentzer said use of a tube can be more effective but also increases the desire for more safety features.

Phoenix America’s work was inspired by University of Minnesota efforts to develop an automated bagging device using easily available technology and materials. Mentzer said Phoenix America is working with Boston Scientific, a medical research institute, and may also supply components to anything it develops.

But after meeting with local medical professionals, the company based at 4717 Clubview Drive used its expertise in encoders, sensors and similar devices to produce a model that gives the operator the ability to control the speed of its electric motor and, as a result, the frequency of compressions.

Angola-based Trine University has been working on a similar product, and Mentzer said Trine and Phoenix America have agreed to collaborate and plan to meet this week. And even if cases of COVID-19 begin to level off then decrease, the PhoenixAir could be stockpiled for future use. It would cost up to $5 billion to buy 100,000 ventilators; Mentzer said the same number of locally produced units would cost $150 million or so.

Despite the widely acknowledged ventilator shortage, some question their effectiveness. A study by the Intensive Care National Audit & Research Center in London found that of 98 ventilated patients, just 33 were discharged alive. In Wuhan, China, where the virus is believed to have originated, just 3 of 22 ventilated patients survived.

“We’re not sure how much help ventilators are going to be,” Dr. Tiffany Osborn of Washington University told National Public Radio. “They may help keep somebody alive in the short term. We’re not sure if it’s going to help keep them alive in the long term.”

As Mentzer acknowledged, the PhoenixAir is not intended as a substitute for ventilators but its potentially less-invasive approach could help many patients while lowering complications and costs. And despite the efforts among some to vilify corporations, Phoenix America is not the only Hoosier company meeting the challenge posed by COVID-19. Just as many corporations shifted to military production during World War II, General Motors will make ventilators in Kokomo. In Fort Wayne, Vera Bradley will produce masks and Three Rivers Distilling Co. is making hand sanitizer.

“We had two options,” Mentzer said. “We could solely rely on payroll protection (from the federal government) or make something that can help in the crisis. We want to help.”

That such a choice is even necessary is a tragedy. But with lives and the global economy hanging in the balance, Phoenix America and fast-adapting companies like it should be commended for making the right one.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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