US Ventilator Allocation and Patient Triage Policies in Anticipation of the COVID-19 Surge

Health Secur. 2021 Sep-Oct;19(5):459-467. doi: 10.1089/hs.2020.0166. Epub 2021 Jun 9.


Before the predicted March 2020 surge of COVID-19, US healthcare organizations were charged with developing resource allocation policies. We assessed policy preparedness and substantive triage criteria within existing policies using a cross-sectional survey distributed to public health personnel and healthcare providers between March 23 and April 23, 2020. Personnel and providers from 68 organizations from 34 US states responded. While half of the organizations did not yet have formal allocation policies, all but 4 were in the process of developing policies. Using manual abstraction and natural language processing, we summarize the origins and features of the policies. Most policies included objective triage criteria, specified inapplicable criteria, separated triage and clinical decision making, detailed reassessment plans, offered an appeals process, and addressed palliative care. All but 1 policy referenced a sequential organ failure assessment score as a triage criterion, and 10 policies categorically excluded patients. Six policies were almost identical, tracing their origins to influenza planning. This sample of policies reflects organizational strategies of exemplar-based policy development and the use of objective criteria in triage decisions, either before or instead of clinical judgment, to support ethical distribution of resources. Future guidance is warranted on how to adapt policies across disease type, choose objective criteria, and specify processes that rely on clinical judgments.

Keywords: COVID-19; Epidemic management/response; Ethics; SARS-CoV-2; Triage; Ventilator allocation.

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Health Care Rationing
  • Humans
  • Policy
  • Resource Allocation
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Triage*
  • Ventilators, Mechanical