Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness

Research Article

Allocation of Ventilators in a Public Health Disaster

Tia Powell c1, Kelly C. Christ and Guthrie S. Birkhead


Background: In a public health emergency, many more patients could require mechanical ventilators than can be accommodated.

Methods: To plan for such a crisis, the New York State Department of Health and the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law convened a workgroup to develop ethical and clinical guidelines for ventilator triage.

Results: The workgroup crafted an ethical framework including the following components: duty to care, duty to steward resources, duty to plan, distributive justice, and transparency. Incorporating the ethical framework, the clinical guidelines propose both withholding and withdrawing ventilators from patients with the highest probability of mortality to benefit patients with the highest likelihood of survival. Triage scores derive from the sepsis-related organ failure assessment system, which assigns points based on function in 6 basic medical domains. Triage may not be implemented by a facility without clear permission from public health authorities.

Conclusions: New York State released the draft guidelines for public comment, allowing for revision to reflect both community values and medical innovation. This ventilator triage system represents a radical shift from ordinary standards of care, and may serve as a model for allocating other scarce resources in disasters. (Disaster Med Public Health Preparedness. 2008;2:20–26)

(Received September 05 2007)

(Accepted November 12 2007)

Key Words

  • ventilator;
  • triage;
  • guideline;
  • influenza;
  • pandemic


c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr Tia Powell, New York State Task Force on Life & the Law, 90 Church St, 15th Floor, New York, NY 10007 (e-mail: tpp03@health.state.ny.us).

Dr Powell is Executive Director, New York State Task Force on Life & the Law; Ms Christ is World Trade Center Health Analyst, Division of Epidemiology, New York City Department of Health and Mental Health; and Dr Birkhead is Director, Center for Community Health, Director, AIDS Institute, New York State Department of Health.