Nightly News   |  October 15, 2009

Swine flu forcing better prep in ICUs

Oct. 15: With Intensive Care Unit equipment already being used at 95 percent capacity in most hospitals, ICU workers are bracing for a big swine flu wave.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> and high winds overnight.

>>> now to the swine flu epidemic. recent studies have shown the key role of hospital intensive care units and especially a complex device that is a combination of a heart/ lung machine and respirator in saving lives of those who have these severe complications associated with the flu. but are hospitals prepared if the epidemic gets worse? nbc's chief science correspondent robert bazell has our report from denver.

>> reporter: desiree peterson, who was a premature baby , had to be rushed to an intensive care unit because of swine flu .

>> they tested her and found out it was h1n1 and she actually had a whole month stay with that h1n1.

>> reporter: sometimes flu patients need assistance breathing with a ventilator. and in the worst cases, a machine called ecmo --

>> this is a very sophisticated device that replaces the cardiac and the lung function. when we fail to manage, you know, significant failure with conventional therapy.

>> reporter: ecmos cost about $120,000 and require highly skilled operators. because of ecmo machines are so successful at treating so many very bad conditions in hospitals that have them, they're in almost constant use already. these patients on ecmo at children's memorial hospital chicago do not have the flu.

>> hey, sweetheart.

>> reporter: but doctors worry what would happen if cases suddenly started pouring in.

>> there's only so much you can do with antivirals and with ventilator management. what this does is it buys us more time.

>> reporter: but it's not just ecmo machines that are in constant use. in most hospitals, everything in the icu is at 95% capacity. why?

>> largely for economic reasons. we run a very lean health care system .

>> reporter: hospitals are supposed to have plans to postpone elective surgery, set up icus in spare rooms, even in tents if they get a sudden influx of flu cases. but recent surveys show that many have not done nearly enough to prepare.

>> most hospitals do not have robust plans on how to increase the capacity of their hospital to deal with a big surge of patients requiring intensive care .

>> reporter: and public health experts agree the planning could make the difference in saving many lives. robert bazell , nbc news, denver.

>>> new numbers tonight on foreclosures,