Quebec health ministry studying new COVID-19 oxygen-therapy device championed by Montreal doctor

The Director of Anesthesia at the Montreal General Hospital is on a mission to quickly identify a Canadian business able to manufacture plastic, non-invasive, oxygen-therapy hoods, similar to ones being used in Italy’s hospitals to treat a devastating number of patients with COVID-19.

CTV News  learned the Quebec government has assembled a team to study the medical device as well.

“In my view, it’s paramount because if you see in the emergency, all the patients in Bergamo are on that helmet. The ventilator cannot be the only answer to this outbreak,” said Dr. Francesco Donatelli.

According to Donatelli, the respiratory hoods, which do not require a ventilator, could help preserve Quebec’s precious supply of ventilators for the most seriously ill patients, reduce ICU admissions, and possibly help prevent the spread of the virus from patient to health-care workers.

“For example, here we have a mask that we use to do CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), but the CPAP puts the person taking care of the patient – too close to the patient. The high flow is going towards the patient but can bounce back to the operator. It’s not published, but it’s reasonable to think that if you breathe in a closed helmet, you can spread the virus less.“

The number of cases in Quebec has climbed dramatically in the last three days, with 35 people now in intensive care.

“I don’t want to be catastrophic,” said Donatelli, “but we have to be ready for the worst.”

As early as three weeks ago, Donatelli contacted the European company that makes the respiratory hood to find out if Quebec hospitals would be able to place orders should the device be approved by the federal and provincial governments.

To his great dismay, a company representative Marco Finotti told him in an email obtained by CTV, “the Italian Government is preventing us from exporting our products as they are deemed necessary items to face the emergency. We have had requests from all over the world.”

So, the Anesthesia director contacted Quebec’s Health Ministry on Mar. 19 about his idea to produce the device here but received no reply.

Late Wednesday afternoon, a spokesperson responded to a CTV News request for an update and confirmed the ministry is aware of the innovation and has “mandated a group of biomedical engineers to carry out an analysis.”

The Montreal specialist approached this mission with such determination because before moving to Quebec, he worked in the province of Bergamo, Italy for ten years. For months he has been in close touch with his former hospital colleagues in northern Italy, as the virus overwhelmed the population. Donatelli said his friends on the front lines tell him that managing the pandemic is “like trying to hold back the sea with their hands.”

The province of Bergamo has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Italy, more than 6,700, according to Italy’s Civil Protection Agency. As of Wednesday morning more than 6,800 people in Italy have died.

In an email sent to CTV News, Dr. Sergio Cattaneo, a specialist in cardiac surgery, anesthesia and resuscitation at Spedali Civili hospital in Brescia said the oxygen-therapy hood "is absolutely necessary to implement the highest number of invasive and non-invasive ventilation supports in order to save as many people as possible. Today we have hospitalized over 600 people with COVID-19 pneumonia. In this scenario the helmet that allows to apply a CPAP support without the need for a ventilator is very useful.”