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How many ICU beds do we actually have and what happened to the Covid surge capacity?

During the height of the pandemic, hospitals used high dependency and post-operative beds on a temporary basis.
Sep 30th 2020, 7:30 AM 76,849 49

LAST WEEK THE HSE unveiled this year’s Winter Plan, with what was described as “unprecedented” government funding of €600 million behind it.

The plan included 500 new acute beds in hospitals and 17 additional intensive care unit beds.

Questions have been raised about whether these ‘additional’ beds announced in the plan will really result an increase in the overall numbers or whether they form part of the ‘surge capacity’ created during the pandemic.

  • Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project to find out if the Irish health system will be better prepared for the next health emergency.

During the peak of the pandemic in Ireland, hospitals trained up additional staff in critical care and converted beds such as post-operative theatre beds into temporary critical care beds. 

At the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee yesterday, People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett raised the issue with HSE CEO Paul Reid.

“In 2009, the HSE said we needed 579 ICU beds. Could you please confirm the figures on this? We have about 280 at the moment. And that is down from the 354, we had in April,” he said.

Now, that to me is very, very alarming. So we are way short of a target set in 2009 before Covid. We are significantly down from the figures we had in April and let’s remind ourselves that in April, they were doing ICU in theatre recovery areas, the additional capacity we had was completely surge-based and unsustainable in the in the long-run. So how close are we to our ICU being overrun?”

Reid said the number of fully staffed ICU beds across the hospital system pre-March was 225. During the pandemic, with surge capacity, this was brought up to 354.

“During the early phases of this, our ICU consultants did a fantastic job when all of our hospital services were closed and created a surge capacity should we have needed it to well over 300, to 354 beds. That was capacity that was utilised for surge and that was capacity where we trained up 2,000 people including nurses and doctors to manage the surge capacity.”

These were temporary beds, however, such as high dependency unit beds, preoperative and post operative theatre beds which have now been brought back into service.

Funding has enabled the HSE to put in place 55 permanent and fully-staffed beds during the pandemic, increasing capacity by 25% since before March and bringing the current number to 280. 

Separately, he said, there also is funding in the Winter Plan for an extra 17 beds, bringing the number close to 300.

  • Pre-Covid capacity: 225
  • Temporary surge capacity: 354
  • Current permanent capacity: 280
  • Capacity after Winter Plan funding: 297

There were 41 of current 280 full-staffed beds available yesterday.

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Reid said that surge capacity was put in place when most other hospital services had been suspended. He said the health service would not like to have to trigger surge capacity again, but there are procedures in place to do so if required.

Yesterday there were 117 confirmed cases in hospitals across the country and 17 of those patients in ICU. 

Reid said he wanted the public to know that while there are lower numbers of patients with Covid-19 in hospital and in ICU now than there was during the peak, with 150 people in ICU, the impacts are still “very significant”.

“It can be significant because what happens is you start to get some of our wards frozen and having to be isolated,” he explained.

“So that’s been the case in some instances – in Beaumont, also the Mater, James’ and other hospitals around the country. A small number of cases can actually have a significant impact because the big difference is, right now, we’re aiming to restore all of our services and bring back as much elective care as we possibly can, whereas in the March April period we had ceased all of our other services.”

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Michelle Hennessy

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