Coronavirus: Intensive care specialists fear New Zealand's health system will be overwhelmed by COVID

Two of New Zealand's most senior intensive care specialists have spoken out about their fears that the country's health system will be overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases as soon as Delta spreads further.

Tania Mitchell, chairperson of the College of Critical Care Nurses, and Dr Alex Psirides, from Australia and New Zealand Intensive Care Society, both say unvaccinated people taking up hospital beds could cause the unnecessary deaths of others.

They're also both afraid of what will happen to New Zealand's ICUs once Delta breaks free.

"I am afraid. I'm afraid for the public. I'm afraid for the hospitals, the health service. I'm afraid for my colleagues, our team, we have a very close-knit team and I'm afraid that this will be overwhelming for us," Mitchell says.

"[I'm] afraid of the healthcare system I work in, being overwhelmed," Dr Psirides says.

The pair are unsure if the ICU system could even cope, with Mitchell pointing out that there aren't enough nurses in intensive care at the moment.

They say once COVID-19 gets out of Auckland through community spread or the borders open, the ICUs will fill.

"That capacity between coping with business as usual which isn't going to go away, versus coping with something that is going to significantly increase the need for ICU beds, is what keeps me awake at night worrying, not knowing where we are going to find the capacity to look after people," Dr Psirides says.

New Zealand has 4.6 ICU beds for every 100,000 people. The United Kingdom has 6.4, Australia 8.9, and Germany 38.7.

"We have a limited ability to flex. We will keep going until we run out of breathing machines. We will endeavour to provide care to everybody who needs it," Dr Psirides says.

Psirides, who is one of the top doctors at Wellington's ICU, says he's worried about avoidable deaths because ICUs are overrun.

"Vaccines are the most effective way of stopping this happening," he says. "Being vaccinated - one jab will keep you out of ICU, two jabs will keep you out of hospital."

Tania Mitchell and Dr Alex Psirides.
Tania Mitchell and Dr Alex Psirides. Photo credit: Newshub.

From what he's seen overseas, Dr Psirides says COVID-19 is largely a disease in intensive care of unvaccinated people.

Mitchell is worried that with an overwhelmed health system, some people may miss out on care.

"I am concerned that if we can't provide care for everybody, then some people will miss out, and that really worries me and my nursing colleagues that people will die who don't need to."

The pair's main fear is clear - unvaccinated COVID cases will take up ICU beds that could be used for others.

"For people who have had vaccines and have a heart attack, there isn't a bed in the intensive care unit. For people who have had vaccines, and have a car accident, there isn't a bed in the intensive care unit," Dr Psirides says. "So healthcare as a whole is affected by individual decisions not to take a vaccine, and I find that very hard to deal with."

He says that people not getting the vaccine will potentially cost lives in other areas.

Mitchell adds that getting vaccinated isn't just about COVID-19, it is also about everybody's health.