With the new coronavirus, COVID-19, battering the U.S. and no clear treatments on the horizon, health care workers are trying anything they can to help the thousands of hospitalized patients.
Though there are several pharmaceutical drugs under trial as possible treatments, including remdesivir and hydroxychloroquine, one simple option has emerged as one of the best ways to help the patients struggling against the respiratory virus to breathe — placing them on their stomachs, called pronation.
“We have been using pronation for the past weeks and we have seen improvement in [patients’] blood levels of oxygen,” Dr. Jorge Mercado, associate section chief of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn, tells PEOPLE, adding that it has worked both with patients who are on ventilators and those without them.
Mercado says that putting patients into pronation “recruits other parts of the lung that were not being used effectively, and therefore improves oxygenation.”
And Kellie Gross, a nurse at Northwell Health Long Island Jewish Medical Center said that they’ve been pronating some of their sickest patients as one of the last attempts to avoid putting them on a ventilator.
“We actually see a lot of success when we have patients that are desaturating, their oxygen is getting lower, when they turn and they lay on their stomach,” she tells PEOPLE. “That actually helps rate their oxygen level, moves things around and opens up the lungs a little bit, so when we see a person that doesn’t need to be intubated yet, but their oxygen level is dipping, that is something we try to do.”
One doctor at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx conducted an informal study at his hospital and monitored 50 new COVID-19 patients with low oxygen levels, between 69 and 85 percent, well below the normal level of 95, The New York Times reported. Dr. Nicholas Caputo told the outlet that after just five minutes of lying in pronation, the patients’ oxygen levels went to a mean of 94 percent. And after 24 hours, three-quarters of the patients were doing well enough that they did not need to go on a ventilator, which is increasingly falling out of favor as a COVID-19 treatment option.
Mercado says that people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases who are recovering at home could also try the technique, though it would be tough to medically measure any improvements in oxygen levels.
The technique is one of the many solutions that health care workers have had to come up with as they do their best to treat a virus that is still somewhat unknown, and one that has been shared between hospitals as they work together to figure out COVID-19.
“It has been a good experience to be able to share what everybody is doing,” says Mercado.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.
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