News Coronavirus How Australia can avoid the horrific hospital bed shortage worst-case modelling foresees
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How Australia can avoid the horrific hospital bed shortage worst-case modelling foresees

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A viral article shows Australia about to run out of ICU beds. But is it true? Photo: TND
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Health experts are calming fears that Australian hospitals are on track to buckle under the weight of coronavirus patients and run out of intensive care beds within weeks.

A viral article published on blogging site Medium by Australian academics Dr Megan Higgie, of James Cook University, and Australian National University PhD student Andrew Kahn has revealed that if Australia failed to implement strict measures it would run out of ICU beds between April 7 and 9.

But both the authors and independent experts stress that this is a worst-case scenario, and social distancing and adherence to bans on public gatherings can curb the virus before it overwhelms our health system.

The mapping used data that showed that out of 700,000 cases in China, 5 per cent of people became critical, therefore requiring an ICU bed with a ventilator. From there, it plotted the known number of ICU beds across Australia to come to its alarming conclusion.

Repeat: an alarming conclusion that’s preventable if we abide by the public health safety measures recommended.

The article, which has been shared thousands of times, was written before the government began implementing social distancing responses to the growing number of cases within the country.

“The number of ICU beds is … critical in determining the number of people who unnecessarily die from COVID-19,” the articles states.

“What do we need to do to prevent unnecessary deaths from 7–9 April onwards (both individually and as leaders)?” it asks.

We need to flatten the curve to reduce the strain. Graph: The Conversation

“The only effective measure is that we go into lock-down and practice extremely strong social distancing within the next 5 – 9 days.”

It is scary stuff. And has concerned readers across the country.

But while accurate, it is an avoidable, worst-case scenario. 

“The purpose of our analysis is to show that, with the worst-case scenario where we do not change some key facts about how we are responding to COVID-19, we will continue to experience exponential growth of COVID-19 here in Australia,” Dr Higgie told The New Daily.

“The purpose of sharing our analysis publicly was to help people understand that the actions we take today will not have an effect for one to two weeks and, with our current trajectory, we are on track to rapidly run out of ICU beds,” she said.

“Not in two-three months, as I thought before we did this analysis, but potentially within less than a month if we do not change how COVID-19 is being spread in Australia.

“We very much hope that we are incorrect in our estimate and Australia manages to stop its exponential growth of cases in the next week or so.

“We don’t have much longer than that.”

Ian Seppelt. senior specialist in intensive care medicine at Nepean Hospital said although the calculations were correct, the truth is we just “don’t know” what will happen.

“Superficially and mathematically it is correct, though it is obviously a worst-case scenario and all public health effort to date has been directed toward making this not come to pass,” Dr Seppelt said.

He stressed that hospitals around the country have had the benefit of being forewarned and have had several weeks to prepare.

Australia’s health system is about to face its biggest test yet. Photo: AAP

“There has been a large effort to plan surge capacity in both intensive care units and wards. For example, in my own hospital moving from our normal 24 commissioned ICU beds to at least double that,” Dr Seppelt said.

“So while what is predicted in the article might come to pass, it would be a huge public health failure if it does, and this is what hundreds of people are working hard to try to mitigate.

“Reality is it’s still going to be bad, but we all hope not as bad as portrayed in the article, and everybody at present is trying to maintain calm rather than whip up hysteria.”

A spokesman for Department of Health echoed the sentiment, saying every state and territory in the country was in the process of expanding their ICU capabilities.

Wash your hands, don’t touch your face

Our best bet to beat this, and make sure patients who are critical can access the beds they need, is to practice strict public health measures – wash your hands, don’t touch your face and limit your contact with people. 

“People should use common sense when practising social distancing and maintaining social interactions,” the department of health spokesman said.

“Social distancing should be adopted across the entire population, avoiding unnecessary contact and moving 1.5 metres from other people.

“People will have to make their own decisions about what social distancing they are able to undertake. These precautions are most important for people over 60, particularly if they have a chronic disease.

“It is important that Australians, even those in self-isolation, maintain their social connection and should stay in touch by phone and online with family and friends.”

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