Data gathered and shared by Australia’s leading intensive medicine experts shows that even the sickest of these patients – those requiring mechanical ventilation and specialist nursing in an intensive care unit – have very good survival rates compared with other countries.
As of last Friday, a total of 214 confirmed COVID-19 patients had been admitted to ICUs since the start of the pandemic. Of the 200 cases where the outcome is known, 170 survived and 30 died.
Of 118 patients placed on mechanical ventilators, 78 per cent have survived.
The overall ICU morbidity rate of 15 per cent compares to 40 per cent in Britain, 44 per cent in China, where COVID-19 originated, and up to 70 per cent in the US, where nearly 140,000 people have died from the disease.
The data does not include deaths from COVID-19 among people not admitted to ICU.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt described the survival rate of patients admitted to ICUs as one of Australia’s most important achievements throughout the pandemic.
“Not only are hospitals well equipped with ICU capacity and surge capacity, but arguably they have the best doctors and nurses and systems in the world,” he told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
“We have an integrated system where information on patient care, the latest treatments and medical research is shared through the Communicable Disease Network of Australia and the Medical Expert Panel. In short, our doctors, nurses and systems are saving lives and protecting lives.”
A key source of information is data collated on a weekly basis by the SPRINT-SARI Australian Study, a collaboration between Monash University and the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society Trials Group.
The project takes real-time data on COVID-19 patient treatments and outcomes across 77 intensive care departments in Australian hospitals and shares that information with government and an Oxford-based international consortium of researchers that tracks emerging respiratory infections.
The latest findings build on data previously reported by The Age that showed similarly promising survival rates during the early stage of the pandemic in March.
Monash University associate professor Craig French, the director of intensive care at Western Health, a hospital group treating patients from COVID hotspots in Melbourne’s north and western suburbs, said the high survival rates recorded by Australian ICUs reflected a “business as usual” approach throughout the pandemic.
“This is a form of viral pneumonia,” he said. “It does have differences to other viral pneumonia but our results are very good and we should continue to treat patients as we normally would treat them.
“The message to the average punter out there is to do what the government says in terms of public health prevention. Not only is that reducing the number of patients with COVID-19, it means that if you are unfortunate enough to get sick enough to need intensive care, you are coming into an environment that is not overwhelmed and can give you the attentive care you need to have the best possible chance of getting better.”
Since the first wave of COVID-19 infections, Victoria’s ICU capacity has increased from 476 beds to nearly 700 and about 1200 ventilators have been distributed to health services. At the Western Health’s Sunshine and Footscray hospitals, a newly designed COVID-19 hood is being trialled so that non-invasive ventilation and other oxygen therapies can be used without putting staff and nearby patients at risk of infection from airborne droplets.
Australia currently has 105 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 27 in ICU. Of those, 85 are in Victorian hospitals and 26 in Victorian ICUs. Professor Sutton said those numbers would increase over the next two weeks.
“We have over 1800 active cases in Victoria,” he said. “That’s a really significant number of people with coronavirus and it does mean that in the next fortnight, we’re going to see a number of people who will require hospital.
“There’s often 10 per cent to 20 per cent of all coronavirus infections who require hospitalisation, so that’s a couple of hundred individuals at least.”
Dr French said there were “ample beds available” within the state’s intensive care units and that, if people observed the public health directions already in place, the risk of the system being overrun was “extremely low”.
Professor Andrew Udy, the deputy director of the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Research Centre at Monash University, said Australia’s survival rates showed the strength of its well resourced intensive care system and highly skilled staff; especially intensive care nurses.
However, he said Australia’s success also reflected the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases recorded here in the first phase of the pandemic, which had not tested the capacity of the intensive care system.
“The key to combatting this is not in the hospital; it is outside the hospital,” he said. “If you get very sick with COVID and the system is able to operate within capacity, we can hopefully achieve very good outcomes for most of those patients.”
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.
Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.