Asthma doctors fear inhaler shortage

University Health System worries about shortage of metered dose inhalers

As more people in San Antonio require breathing treatments due to COVID-19, fears for another medically-fragile condition is emerging.

SAN ANTONIO – As more people in San Antonio require breathing treatments due to COVID-19, fears for another medically-fragile condition is emerging.

Instead of worrying about the number of ventilators available for when the pandemic peaks in this region, University Health System is counting metered dose inhalers, also referred to in medical circles as MDI’s.

The devices are preferred by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for use in coronavirus patients, because unlike nebulizers, the user is not spreading their nano aerosol droplets into the air around them, which puts health care providers at greater risk.

While inhalers containing the drug, Albuterol, are in high demand for the pandemic, they are the everyday lifesaving medicine of choice for asthmatics. In addition to control medications for maintaining healthy lung conditions, MDI’s are considered the “rescue” or “escape” drug that needs to be on hand in the event of an asthma attack.

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University Health System has been studying the number of MDI’s in demand in other regions where coronavirus is peaking and is making the declaration that there’s likely a shortage coming to the San Antonio area.

Dr. Margie Tiddall Svatek, a UHS associate professor and hospitalist and the medical director of the Kids Breath Program at the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, has a warning about the possibility of an inhaler shortage.

“If these inhalers keep being used at the state they are now across the U.S., then we can foresee a shortage within perhaps 60 days,” she said.

Svatek adds that this is a best estimate using the numbers we have now, and that could change. Still, it’s important to the asthma community to be forewarned that there may be a shortage. She said community health workers are now getting on the phone and giving education to families who depend on inhalers.

“If you are using your controller medication, and you don’t have to use this escape inhaler, then that can help with not having to worry about this. But if this becomes a dire strait where we don’t even have enough of the albuterol to purchase, then we’re in trouble,” Svatek said.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that some asthmatic kids are quarantined in homes with their pets and their dander, as well as potentially being exposed more often to any smoker in the home. It’s feared their symptoms could worsen in a “stay home” environment. It’s an ironic twist since the COVID-19 safety orders could, in some cases, cause asthma attacks that the medications are needed for.

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Svatek said efforts are being made to get generic forms of the albuterol inhalers in circulation, and that may help solve the expected shortage.

If you are an asthmatic in need of a rescue inhaler or control medications, you should contact your health care provider and make sure you are on their radar for attention.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new virus, stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The disease first appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, but spread around the world in early 2020, causing the World Health Organization to declare a pandemic in March.

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About the Author:

Ursula Pari has been a staple of television news in Texas at KSAT 12 News since 1996 and a veteran of broadcast journalism for more than 30 years.