Coronavirus: ICU specialists disagree with Health Minister Andrew Little on ICU surge capacity potential

Andrew Little isn't concerned by a new report suggesting the health system only has half the ICU capacity he's previously claimed there is. 

The Health Minister in October said the country's low number of staffed beds per capita could be boosted to 550 in the event of a surge of COVID-19 cases. We typically have about half that, with around two-thirds generally in use at any one time.

But an article in the New Zealand Medical Journal (NZMJ) published on Friday said - based on responses to a nationwide survey of senior ICU staff at hospitals - there's only enough staff to add another 67 beds in the event of a surge, not hundreds.

"These responses from senior clinicians in all New Zealand public hospitals reflect the current real-world capacity and surge capability readily available to them," the article said.

"It is possible that respondents were not aware of all non-ICU nursing staff who might potentially contribute to the surge workforce. However, because we used the highest number when a range of potential staff numbers was provided by a respondent, our numbers may overestimate available staffing... our surge capacity is likely to be limited by available nursing staff."

Appearing on Newhub Nation on Saturday, Little said the Ministry of Health advised him it could scale up to 550 and he's not sure how the authors of the NZMJ article came to a much lower figure.

"But in order to get 550, there's a whole lot of other patients on wards who would have to be discharged and a whole lot of planned care that could not take place. There is capacity in the system."

New Zealand is currently reporting about 200 cases a day, though the numbers fluctuate heavily. Little said we currently have 10 patients in ICU from just over 3000 active cases.

"We are seeing a rapid increase in case numbers but we're not seeing a corresponding escalation in hospitalision and ICU usage. That is because as our vaccination levels go up, the people who are increasingly getting infected are the vaccinated, and they don't get anywhere near as unwell as the unvaccinated.

"In the end, we actually have to make sure the hospital capacity is there for the unvaccinated, because they're the ones who are likely to get most unwell and therefore most likely to need hospital-level care."

Unlike most countries, New Zealand's biggest wave of COVID-19 has come amid a rapidly-expanding vaccine rollout, hopefully sparing us the kinds of mortality seen overseas in the past two years.

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