Painkillers, sedatives in short supply during COVID-19 pandemic

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A shortage of painkillers and sedatives for COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe is causing concerned hospital groups to seek changes to increase the supply of these drugs.

Patients with more severe cases of the viral respiratory illness may require ventilators, which are machines that help with breathing. But the process of inserting a plastic tube into a patient’s airway is painful and requires pain medicine and sedation.

Beverly Philip, the president-elect of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, said patients in the ICU that use a breathing tube for a ventilator often need medicines to help relax or ease pain, as well as muscle relaxants to help their bodies accept the ventilator.

“These are part of routine needs in the intensive care unit,” she said.

Drugs such as morphine, hydromorphone and the synthetic opioid fentanyl are used to relax COVID-19 patients. Cisatracurium, a commonly used muscle relaxant, and general anesthesia drugs like propofol are often in short supply. Many patients need a combination of these drugs.

“Although elective surgeries are dramatically down, the fact that you have to ventilate patients with COVID for sometimes as little as five to seven days, but sometimes for two weeks or longer, means that the total amount of drugs necessary would be greater than a hospital normally uses,” said Lee Fleisher, chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, who has observed the shortages.

The Food and Drug Administration is working with the manufacturers of drugs such as fentanyl and morphine “on anything that can be done to increase supplies,” said Nathan Arnold, an agency spokesperson. – READ MORE

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