Australia

ICU beds could soon be full as COVID-19 outbreak spreads

Australia's intensive care wards are already nearing capacity despite low numbers of COVID-19 patients on ventilators as the nation's surge capacity plans remain on standby.

A snapshot from the federal government's Critical Health Resource Information System, which keeps track of intensive care unit beds across Australia, shows Victoria's staffed ICU beds were at 85 per cent capacity with 380 out of 446 beds full on Thursday.

This does not include the additional 4000 beds with ventilators the Victorian government plans to activate if needed to surge the state's ICU capacity, a task that will require the mobilisation of thousands of specially-trained intensive care nurses.

Governments are yet to activate their ICU surge capacity plans.

Governments are yet to activate their ICU surge capacity plans.Credit:Justin McManus

The federal government has an additional 7500 ventilators in the national medical stockpile.

The snapshot, seen by The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, showed that 1691 - 81 per cent - out of the nation's 2076 staffed ICU beds were full.

The Victorian government has moved to freeze elective surgery in public hospitals at 75 per cent of pre-pandemic surgical lists, halting plans to restore capacity to 100 per cent out of caution over a potential surge of critically-ill COVID-19 patients in coming weeks.

Deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth said low numbers of seriously ill COVID-19 patients meant there was "sufficient intensive care capacity, even at normal bed numbers, in Victoria at the moment."

He said there were still fewer than 10 COVID-19 patients in Australia's intensive care units on Thursday, most of them in Melbourne.

"Surging ICU capacity ... is something that happens when your intensive care really does start to get full of patients with COVID-19," Dr Coatsworth said.

"And, of course, we have to be able to maintain business as usual, and provide intensive care for those patients who don't have COVID-19, despite the epidemic."

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Dr Coatsworth said health authorities were keeping "a close eye" on ICU capacity but there were no plans yet to release ventilators from the national medical stockpile, as state health departments would draw upon their own stockpiles first.

Infectious disease expert Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity research program at the University of NSW Kirby Institute, said it was difficult to predict how many ICU beds would be needed as case numbers climbed.

"ICU admissions and deaths lag behind the cases, because there is usually one week of mild symptoms," Professor MacIntyre said.

"People can take two weeks or more to have respiratory failure ... It will track along with the epidemiological curve."

The Victorian government's move to freeze elective surgery at restricted levels in public hospitals is the first time private and public patients have been subject to different restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Victoria's public hospitals have been advised to remain at 75 per cent levels of elective surgery to ensure our hospitals have the capacity they need to provide lifesaving care should we continue to see a rise in coronavirus cases," a health department spokesman said.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the state was prepared to deal with an increase in COVID-19 hospital admissions, with "very large stockpiles of everything" including ventilators and personal protective equipment.

"We have the trained staff and the places that have been refitted," Mr Andrews said. "We are confident we have got everything we're going to need."

A Victorian government spokeswoman said the state's hospitals had been preparing since January, "creating extra capacity and ensuring we have enough beds, equipment and PPE to manage any surge in patients as a result of the pandemic."

"While we are starting to see an increase in hospital presentations, Victorians can be assured our health system is ready and able to meet additional demand if necessary," the spokeswoman said.

With Noel Towell

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