Coronavirus: Wealthy Americans trying to panic-buy ventilators as hospitals struggle to cope

The US is facing a ventilator shortage but wealthy people are still trying to buy them over fears COVID-19 will spread rapidly throughout the country.

Ventec, a small ventilator company near Seattle, says it's had a surge in demand not only from hospitals and government offices, but also from the area's wealthiest individuals who want their own as a backup plan.

Ventec CEO Chris Kiple told The New York Times he's received inquiries from a number of people who want their own personal machines in case the American hospital system caves under pressure from COVID-19.

"I can tell you with a 100 percent confidence that every single manufacturer is facing a backlog right now," he says.

Hospitals are claiming the medical devices, which can be the difference between life and death for some patients, can't be found anywhere - and the manufacturers say they can't speed up production enough to meet the demand.

While European countries have sped up their production of ventilators, the US has been slow to develop a national strategy to cope with the onslaught of COVID-19, The New York Times reports.

There are around 160,000 ventilators in hospitals across the US and a further 12,700 in stockpile to use as a response to medical emergencies.

Around half of all ventilators currently used in intensive care units in America were made overseas, but those companies are feeling the pressure to sell more.

"The reality is there is absolutely not enough," chief executive of Hamilton Medical - a ventilation production company Switzerland - Andreas Wieland says.

He's seen such a rise in demand that he's hired more employees and moved office workers to the factory floor, but he still can't keep up with orders.

"Italy wanted to order 4,000, but there’s not a chance. We sent them something like 400."

The lack of ventilators was a subject of a tense exchange between US President Donald Trump and health officials after he suggested they "try getting it yourselves".

"We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves. Point of sales, much better, much more direct if you can get it yourself," he said, according to Business Insider.

Trump's comment was reportedly surprising for the health officials given they are currently working to contain the spread of COVID-19 and are hoping for more government funding.

Business Insider says healthcare workers are trying numerous strategies as they work to deal with the outbreak. They're building triage tents outside hospitals, putting extra beds in break rooms, and either cancelling or delaying elective surgeries.

Trump declared a national emergency on Friday (local time), which will trigger the Stafford Act and allow US$50 billion (NZ$90.9 billion) in government funding to be given to cities and states.