A headline shared across social media claims ventilators “killed nearly all Covid patients.” This is false; the article misrepresents a study that only looked at outcomes for patients who would have died from respiratory failure had they not been offered mechanical life support, according to one of the researchers.
“Nearly all Covid-19 patients who died in hospital during the early phase of the pandemic were killed as a direct result of being put on a ventilator,” claims an article published May 13, 2023 by The People’s Voice, a website formerly known as News Punch, which AFP has fact-checked numerous times for sharing misinformation.
The People’s Voice cites a peer-reviewed study (archived here) published April 27, 2023 in The Journal of Clinical Investigation. The article accurately describes the research, but the headline and first paragraph — screenshots of which spread across social media — misrepresent the findings.
In the study, a team at Northwestern Memorial Hospital used machine learning to analyze data from 585 patients with “severe pneumonia and respiratory failure” — 190 with Covid-19 — who were placed on ventilators.
The researchers found mortality was higher in those who contracted ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP), a secondary infection that can develop when germs enter the lungs through the machine’s tube, that did not respond to treatment.
“Those who were cured of their secondary pneumonia were likely to live, while those whose pneumonia did not resolve were more likely to die,” said senior author Benjamin Singer in a Northwestern article published May 5.
But Singer, a professor of pulmonary medicine at the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said the People’s Voice headline misrepresents this finding.
“It is vital to note that all of the patients in our study were critically ill due to respiratory failure and would have died if they did not receive life support from a mechanical ventilator,” he told AFP in a May 23 email.
“Hence, primary pneumonia — including Covid-19 — was the cause of death in patients who died during our study.”
To claim otherwise would be akin to saying someone who dies during surgery after a life-threatening car crash died because of the operation and not the accident, Singer said.
The study findings highlight the importance of preventing and treating VAP in critically ill patients, he added. But there are limitations to the research.
The paper authors noted the study is observational, meaning they could not exclude “unmeasured confounders that link unresolving VAP to poor outcomes.” Infectious disease experts previously told AFP the research is limited by its lack of autopsy-adjudicated causes of death.
Yale Medicine says on its website that there “are risks associated with ventilator use” — including infection.
“Nonetheless, ventilators can be life-saving and, indeed, many of those who’ve survived severe cases of Covid-19 would be unlikely to have made it without one,” the university says.
More of AFP’s reporting on misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic is available here.