Coronavirus Ventilators: Pew Poll Finds Majority Favor Treating Those Most in Need

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Employees check a ventilator, which was originally developed for animals but may be used for coronavirus patients in Tokyo, Japan, April 2, 2020. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

A new survey from the Pew Research Center has a variety of interesting figures on how Americans are responding to the COVID-19 crisis. One of the most intriguing sections of the survey gauges public opinion on how to allocate medical care to sick patients when hospitals are dealing with shortages.

Overall, the public is about split on the question of which patients should receive a ventilator, if ventilators are in short supply: Fifty percent of respondents chose “patients who are most in need at the moment,” while 45 percent chose “patients who doctors think are most likely to recover with treatment.” It’s a tricky distinction, and one that more likely than not would come down to a question of whether the patient in question is elderly or has a preexisting condition, favoring those who are young and healthy.

More interesting still, Pew released the responses for the same question broken down into categories by race, age, income level, party affiliation, and religious affiliation — and the results are fascinating.

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Unsurprisingly, older Americans are far more in favor than younger Americans of giving ventilators to those who need them in the moment; it is older Americans, after all, who would most likely be given short shrift under the “give ventilators to patients most likely to recover” plan. Americans between the ages of 18-29 were the most likely of any category surveyed to favor giving ventilators to those most likely to recover (58 percent) compared with just 39 percent who favored helping those most in need.

There was a similar breakdown when Pew reviewed the data by economic level. A majority of “upper income” respondents (52 percent) favored giving ventilators to those most likely to recover, while a majority of “low income“ respondents (56 percent) favored giving them to those most in need in the moment. Republicans tended to favor treating those most in need (a 53–41 percent split) while Democrats went slightly in the opposite direction (47 percent for most in need versus 49 percent for those most likely to recover).

White respondents were evenly split on the question, with 48 percent in the “need them now” camp and 47 percent in the “most likely to recover” group. The views of black respondents were starkly different: An overwhelming majority (60 percent) favored giving ventilators to those most in need in the moment.

But perhaps the most interesting section of all was when Pew categorized the responses by religious group. In every religious group represented — Evangelical Protestant, mainline Protestant, historically black Protestant, and Catholic — a strong majority favored giving treatment priority to those most in need. Religiously unaffiliated Americans, meanwhile, went the other way, with only 41 percent favoring giving ventilators to those most in need compared with 56 percent who favored helping those most likely to recover.

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