'Completely overwhelmed': Grim 17-day prediction for Australia's hospital beds

Australia could run out of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds within weeks if the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases continues, the ABC’s medical expert Dr Norman Swan says.

According to Dr Norman Swan, NSW could reach its ICU capacity by April 10 with Victoria following shortly after.

“In that case ICU physicians will be faced with some very difficult decisions,” he said on ABC’s Q&A on Monday night.

In NSW there are 13 coronavirus patients in ICU, the state’s chief medical Officer Dr Kerry Chant said on Tuesday morning.

Dr Swan’s prediction on Q&A was prompted by a question from an elderly lady who asked would older Australians with respiratory problems be denied the equipment they needed to survive.

“If you’re already sick and frail, you don’t necessarily put up very well with a ventilator,” he said.

Dr Swan noted that overseas, 30 to 40 per cent of ICU beds are filled with young people.

University of Queensland virologist Professor Ian Mackay told Yahoo News Australia advanced medical systems, such as what is in place in Australia, are struggling to cope abroad, meaning medics are having to decide who to save.

An Italian hospital struggles to cope with the influx in patients. Source: 60 Minutes
An Italian hospital struggles to cope with the influx in patients. Source: 60 Minutes

“[The outbreak] is enough to swamp an advanced healthcare system,” he said.

“These are not some small town thing, they’re advanced health care systems and they’ve got them in northern Italy, and yet they’re still being completely overwhelmed.

“They’ve had to choose between someone living and dying because they don’t have enough beds, space or staff to cope with the sheer overwhelming number of sick people.”

‘Australia is not Italy’, deputy chief medical officer says

However, deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly said Australia was able to triple its ICU capacity, which is understood to be around 2500 beds, if needed.

Dr Norman Swan (left) and Professor Paul Kelly (right) on Q&A on Monday night. Source: ABC
Dr Norman Swan (left) and Professor Paul Kelly (right) on Q&A on Monday night. Source: ABC

There is also a possibility, if needed, for temporary medical facilities to be quickly constructed as heavily documented in Wuhan and in some parts of Italy.

He also warned Australia “is not Italy” and quashed any suggestion Australia is two weeks behind the European epicentre.

“We have been testing and finding many more mild cases,” he stressed.

“Italy only tested the top of the pyramid, the very serious cases if they came into hospital.”

Over 60,000 COVID-19 tests have been performed in NSW alone.

Italy’s most restrictive lockdown measures were implemented when its death toll edged towards 1000, while Scott Morrison’s latest restrictions, although not as stringent as Italy’s, have come as Australia’s toll stands at seven.

On Tuesday after, Australia’s number of confirmed cases rose to 1,973.

Mr Kelly said estimations still stand that roughly 20 per cent of Australia’s population would contract the virus and reiterated the virus’s outbreak was a prolonged event in the absence of a vaccine.

“This is not a two or four week phenomenon, it’s until we get the vaccine,” he warned.

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