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Thousands of beds promised for coronavirus pandemic may never be used

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said 350 new intensive or critical-care beds had already been opened or were in-train, while the remaining would be acute beds upgraded with sophisticated medical equipment.

“Whilst we have been working around the clock to prepare for increased demand we hope that if Victorians continue to do the right thing, we will never need to use those ICU beds,” she said.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the state was preparing for the worst but hoped additional hospital capacity would not be needed.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the state was preparing for the worst but hoped additional hospital capacity would not be needed.Credit:AAP

Austin Hospital director of intensive care Dr Stephen Warrillow said he believed work had been done to see if a large temporary hospital would be necessary, similar to the NHS Nightingale in London, which was built in nine days and will eventually hold 4000 beds.

“That sort of thing had been scoped out – but I don’t know how far advanced it is,” he said

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton revealed on Monday that initial modelling had shown that without the introduction of strict social distancing measures 36,000 Victorians could have died.

It was a nightmarish scenario also being contemplated by ICU doctors who looked at similar data, including The Alfred’s intensive care specialist Professor David Pilcher.

Professor David Pilcher said initial modelling was well beyond the capacity of Australia's ICUs to manage - but is buoyed by the recent trends in infections.

Professor David Pilcher said initial modelling was well beyond the capacity of Australia’s ICUs to manage – but is buoyed by the recent trends in infections.Credit:Simon Schluter

“It was worse than we all thought and would have gone way beyond any of the capacity that we have,” Professor Pilcher said.

Since then, social distancing efforts have been matched with a coordinated response from Victorian hospitals to expand their ICUs, mostly by commandeering other spaces such as operation recovery areas and dormant wards.

The Austin, the Royal Melbourne and Western Health are among those with plans to double or triple their ICU capacity, and The Alfred is remodelling the entire second floor of the hospital into a dedicated ward to treat those with COVID-19.

While these bed expansions still fall significantly short of the 4000 promised, policymakers now believe many are unlikely to be required, along with other emergency steps, such as transforming the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre into a giant hospital and morgue.

Some intensive care units are even quieter than usual due to a drop in emergency and elective surgery cases – including the ICUs at Footscray and Sunshine, which have been at about 60 per cent capacity in recent weeks.

Professor Pilcher said coronavirus patients may now be able to be accommodated within existing ICUs, or beds relatively easily converted for intensive care patients – estimated to be an extra 1166 in Victoria, according to a paper he co-authored.

However, none at the front line of a potential coronavirus surge are declaring the worst has passed.

Western Health ICU director Associate Professor Craig French is among many of his peers in touch with doctors in Europe and the US, who warn against complacency.

“The situation there is very, very, very, very confronting and very, very disturbing,” Professor French said.

But he said, at the least, community compliance with social distancing had bought valuable time for local hospitals to prepare.

Professor French said he understood initial predictions were being revised “and the scenarios where many, many thousands of ICU beds were potentially required are looking much less likely”.

As a worst-case coronavirus threat appears to abate, intensive care specialists say the next challenge will be how to safely restart some important parts of the health system that had been put on hold.

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