How would overwhelmed hospitals decide who to treat first?

FILE - This Monday, March 23, 2020, file photo shows medical supplies and a stretcher displayed before a news conference at the Jacob Javits Center in New York. Health care workers are dreading the prospect of deciding which patients would get a ventilator that could save their lives. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, Fle) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

NEW YORK – A nurse with asthma, a grandfather with cancer and a homeless man with no known family are wracked with coronavirus-induced fevers. They are struggling to breathe, and a ventilator could save their lives. But who gets one when there aren't enough to go around?

Health care workers are dreading the prospect of such dire scenarios as U.S. hospitals brace for a looming surge in patients who need breathing machines and other resources that could soon be in critically short supply.

That has meant dusting off playbooks they’ve never before had to implement on how to fairly ration limited resources during an emergency.

“I pray for their good judgment and their capacity as they make very difficult choices,” said Erik Curren, whose 77-year-old father died this month from respiratory complications related to the virus after becoming infected at an assisted living home in Florida.

Harrowing scenarios already are unfolding in country after country hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, including Spain, where one nursing home official said sick residents are dying after being unable to get into overflowing hospitals.

Like much of the rest of the world, ventilators that help people breathe are in particular demand across the U.S., given the respiratory problems common among people severely ill with COVID-19.

As many as 900,000 coronavirus patients in the U.S. could need the machines during the outbreak, according to the Society for Critical Care Medicine. Yet the group estimates the country has only 200,000, many of which already are being used by other patients.

In New York, the U.S. epicenter of the outbreak, one city hospital has already logged 13 coronavirus deaths in a single day and officials are setting up hundreds of hospital beds in a sprawling convention center as cases climbed past 30,000 in the city.