For millions of people around the world, the coronavirus pandemic that causes COVID-19 has upended life and business alike. Some are feeling the pinch of an economy that has been partially shut down. Others are experiencing a boom. Among those booming right now is Chris Austin, the owner of an obscure, small ‘mom and pop’ style business that manufactured helmet ventilators.
In recent weeks, concerns about life-saving ventilators being unavailable have increased.  In severe cases, patients suffering from COVID-19 may require intubation, allowing a ventilator to assist with breathing. Hospital networks will have some ventilators on hand, but most are not prepared for a scenario in which hundreds or even thousands of people may require ventilators to help save lives.
Austin’s company, Sea-Long Medical Systems Inc, has a total of five employees and a few volunteers from the family’s church who occasionally help produce helmet ventilators. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Austin received a few dozen orders every week. Now, with nearly 200,000 cases of COVID-19 in the United States alone, he’s receiving thousands of orders a day. Each device costs less than $200.
Sea-Long helmets don’t look the part of a life-saving medical device. They look kind of like space helmets. But in Italy, where coronavirus spread quickly and relentlessly, they saved lives. The helmets were found to be effective in treating some COVID-19 patients who were having difficulty breathing, which freed up intubation ventilators for more critical cases.
Moreover, some believe the helmets may spare patients the need for intubation all together. Dr. Bhakti Patel, a pulmonologist at the University of Chicago, believes that these helmets could be the key to saving even more lives.
“I would love for there to be a silver bullet for this pandemic,” Dr. Patel told NBC News. “My best hope is that the way it changes the game is that maybe it shaves off the number of patients who need a ventilator — even if it’s 1 out of 3 or 1 out of 5.”
Dr. Patel added: “If that is the case, that would be a game-changer when we’re seeing this tidal wave of patients who need a ventilator.”
Dr. Patel is very familiar with the Sea-Long helmet. In 2016, she pioneered a study that tested the helmet on 83 intensive care patients suffering from acute respiratory distress. Dr. Patel and his research team found that patients who used the helmets had a better 90-day survival rate and required ventilation only 18.2 percent of the time as opposed to 61.5 percent among those who used only an oxygen mask.
“The University’s data and safety monitoring board recommended that we stop the trial early because the helmet consistently demonstrated multiple advantages, particularly the reduced need to intubate patients and longer-term reduction in mortality.”
“After reviewing our data,” he added, “the board felt that it would be difficult to justify enrolling more patients in the face mask arm of the trial, which exposed them to greater risks.” 
Placing patients on a ventilator is an extremely invasive, expensive, and uncomfortable experience. Individuals who are intubated require sedative medications to help reduce movement and discomfort.
“If we take away the ventilator — which comes with this package of sedating people, making them not move, making them sort of not have memory of what’s happening — perhaps we could spare some patients some long-term complications,” Patel said.
The University of Chicago Medical Center has so far tested the Sea-Long helmet on one patient and got good results according to Dr. John Kress. Dr. Kress’s team has since received 20 helmets and expects 80 more. They plan to use them on additional patients.
Chris Austin and his staff and volunteers are overwhelmed by the number of orders they’re receiving. They’ve been working tirelessly for weeks, and Austin has hired an additional 5 people, doubling his staff. He says there’s been such an outpouring of support that he’s not sure what to do with all the help.
“We have people showing up that we don’t even know that say: ‘We’re here to help. What can we do?'” Austin said. “They don’t ask for anything. They don’t expect anything. They just say, ‘Whatever you want me to do, we’ll do it.'”
“It just about brings tears to my eyes,” Austin added.
Austin has received support from unlikely places as well, namely George Whitesides, the CEO of Virgin Galactic. Austin relayed a conversation he had with Whitesides.
“Chris, I saw what you do, and we want to help,” Austin recalls Whitesides saying. “Whatever it takes.”
Austin relayed that he simply needed more machines in order to manufacture all of the helmets being ordered. He says later that day, he received a call from a supplier based in New Jersey saying that someone paid his bill and that four additional machines will be shipped out. The increased number of machines will allow Sea-Long to produce hopefully 50,000 helmets per week.
“This is the classic sort of American story,” Dr. Patel said. “It’s the little engine that could.”
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