Two doses of COVID-19 vaccine 'prevented any New Zealander entering ICU' - Chief Medical Officer

Two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine "appears to have prevented any New Zealander entering ICU," according to Chief Medical Officer Andrew Connolly. 

Dr Connolly made the revelation to Parliament's Health Select Committee on Wednesday as Health Minister Andrew Little was grilled by MPs about the Government's intensive care unit (ICU) capacity. 

The Government has come under fire for not spending any of its $50 billion COVID fund on new ICU beds, and National's health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti asked Little during the briefing if it was "a fair statement to make" that more could have been done to prepare for an outbreak. 

"The approach we took was, there's the beds in an ICU ward or an HDU, and then there's other beds that can be used for equivalent level care, and the advice I've had is that hospitals - were there an additional demand caused by COVID - they would be able to convert sufficient beds to meet an expected level of demand, were there to be some sort of surge," Little said. 

"But I think Dr Reti, you're right, all the commentary is that even before COVID, we were underdone nationwide in terms of ICU capacity."

Little said population growth would warrant another hospital the size of Counties Manukau or Canterbury, but "we didn't add that capacity to the health system", which he described as an historical issue. 

Little recently announced a boost of hundreds of millions of dollars for ICU capacity - almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. The additional ICU beds are planned to be operational in Canterbury, Waitematā, and Bay of Plenty DHBs next year. 

Little argues that additional ICU beds are only part of the solution and that the Government's strategy was to prevent people needing ICU by driving vaccination. The latest data shows 89 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. 

"Andrew Connolly will correct me if I'm wrong, but 100 percent of those who wound up in ICU are unvaccinated," Little said. 

"Exactly right minister, the double dose appears to have prevented any New Zealander entering the ICU," Dr Connolly replied. 

"Certainly no fully vaccinated patients with COVID have ended up in ICU. 

"There have been, of course, very elderly patients double dosed who due to their general comorbidities and so forth have died with COVID, not necessarily of, but clinicians discussing with their families felt that ICU care was not appropriate."

Dr Reti is disappointed there will be no extra ICU beds until June 2022 - a revelation Little made in Parliament last week

"The Government has wasted the best part of two years pretending this wasn't an issue and has now lost valuable time in building our COVID defences, putting the health of New Zealanders at risk," Dr Reti said. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has defended the Government's ICU capacity by pointing to the nearly 1400 extra nurses trained to be able to work in an ICU environment under supervision

"One of the most important things that needed to be provided are not just the beds but the staffing of the beds. Five nurses are required for every ICU," she said in Parliament. 

"Five ICU nurses are required per bed, so not only have we got 300 ICU or high dependency unit beds and the ability to surge to 500, we put aside funding in the Budget to ensure that we could train the staff required for the additional beds that we have." 

But despite the Government allocating 300 spaces in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ), for critical healthcare workers in October, the Ministry of Health said only about 79 slots available to December 15 were filled - and that was for all healthcare workers, not just nurses.