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Could CPAP machines help COVID-19 patients?

May 28: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at CovidQ@mit.edu, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer. 

Could the “ventilators” used for sleep apnea, such as CPAP, be useful for someone with COVID-19 who has difficulty breathing?

Unfortunately, no. Clinicians initially considered the use of CPAP (continuous positive air pressure) machines for COVID-19 patients with relatively mild breathing problems. However, it turns out that these types of breathing machines have the potential to increase the spread of COVID-19 infection by sending viral particles into the air. In fact, this very scenario is thought to have contributed to the spread of the virus in the Kirkland, Washington, nursing home that became ground zero for the illness in early March. Following protocol, first responders initially used positive airway pressure machines to treat residents with breathing problems. Of course, this was before anyone knew that the patients’ breathing problems were a result of infections with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Thirty-five residents ultimately died of complications of COVID-19; 47 staff members were sickened. 

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