The majority of hospitals in England will run out of intensive care beds within two weeks if the current growth of COVID-19 infections continues at its current rate, according to a research team at the University of Cambridge.
Intensive care unit (ICU) occupancy is likely to increase “dramatically” over the next few weeks as the pandemic spreads – and the new study from the Cambridge researchers has now shown that within two weeks, five out of seven commissioning regions in England will have more critically ill COVID-19 patients than can be accommodated with ICU beds normally available.
The number of confirmed global COVID-19 cases stands at almost 400,000, with more than 17,000 confirmed deaths, many of them as a result of severe lung inflammation.
The mechanical ventilation procedures used to deal with that inflammation can only be provided on an ICU and it is estimated that the average length of time needed for that to be successful is eight days.
Dr Ari Ercole, from the Division of Anaesthesia at the University of Cambridge, said: “If mechanical ventilation cannot be provided to patients who need it, they will die. ICU capacity is a crucial concern as additional capacity takes time to create both in terms of staffing and equipment.”
As a result of the ongoing rise in COVID-19 patients, there is a massive shortage in equipment and staff and hospitals – which will still have to deal with the usual volumes on non-COVID-19 patients requiring ICU care – and they could be overwhelmed within two weeks, the researchers said.
A massive national effort is underway to recruit more clinical staff and capacity and it has seen more than 11,500 retired medics respond to a call to return to the NHS during the crisis. More than 18,000 medical students will also join the NHS workforce.
Additional efforts are being to made to acquire ICU equipment, especially ventilation machines, while the nation’s private hospital sector has committed almost its entire capacity for NHS use – at cost, not profit – to deal with COVID-19.
It was confirmed today that a 4,000-bed ‘makeshift’ hospital is also being set up at the ExCel conference and events centre in East London to deal with the unprecedented pressures on the health service.
Dr Ercole, who is also a Fellow in Clinical Medicine at Magdelen College, Cambridge, said: “If our assumptions are correct, ICU capacity may be complete overwhelmed very quickly in England.
“A large increase in ICU capacity is required extremely urgently if we are to be able to treat patients with life-threatening COVID-19 in the near future.”
The forecast was made using a real-time computer model developed by Dr Ercole and colleagues from Cambridge’s Division of Anaesthesia and Department of Computer Science and Technology, using COVID-19 diagnosis data as reported by Public Health England and matched to NHS commissioning regions.
The research has not been peer-reviewed, but the findings have been made available online early due to the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis.