Anaesthetists warn of intensive care bed shortages

Author: Jo Carlowe

A lack of coordination between European countries and a shortage of intensive care beds has left Europe ‘woefully unprepared’ to fight COVID-19.

The warning comes from the President of the European Society of Anaesthesiology (ESA), Professor Kai Zacharowski, Director of the Department of Anesthesia, Intensive Care Medicine and Pain Therapy, University Hospital Frankfurt, Germany.

Professor Zacharowski’s comments come following a decision to postpone the annual Euoranaesthesia Congress, scheduled to start on 30 May in Barcelona, in order to keep specialists on the frontline.

"We realise how vital anaesthesiologists and critical care specialists are during this time, and that the need to be present in their hospitals far outweighs any other normal activities. Our members and community are crucial in containing this pandemic and saving countless lives,” said Professor Zacharowski.

As well as a shortage of intensive care beds across most European countries, Professor Zacharowski warned of a lack of coordination between European countries regarding strategy and containment measures.

"Governments in Europe, including the United Kingdom, have not prepared together for the unbelievable stretch on our health services being caused by this pandemic. We have not been able to organise ourselves in a way to have everything that we need, such as enough ventilators to be able to treat large numbers of patients in intensive care at the same time.”

He added: "We cannot stop the virus, all we can do is try to stretch out the peak of cases that need intensive care, so that we will be able to treat as many seriously ill patients as possible. Unfortunately, as the experience in Italy is showing, there are going to be times when very difficult decisions have to be made about who gets treatment and who does not, based on the likelihood of survival.”

He continued: "For the last decade across Europe we have been cutting down on hospital beds, including intensive care beds. And now we are realising that we don't have enough. If we had arranged and distributed equipment at the right time, countries might have been able to avoid the situation in Italy. But now, there has been a rush to order equipment such as ventilators, which companies are struggling to provide due to interruption in supply of parts from China.”

Commenting, ESA’s Past President Stefan De Hert, based at Ghent University Hospital in Belgium, said: "According to the unpublished data provided by our Italian colleagues the mean age of all COVID-19 patients is 70 years, and one of the major risk factors for admission to intensive care is obesity. Although it is mostly more serious in older patients, patients less than 50 years old without underlying conditions seem to constitute one in every five of the COVID-19 ICU patients. Finally, infected women seem to develop less symptoms than men, and also children seem to experience the infection without important clinical problems. These data are quite similar to what we have learned from the experiences of our Chinese colleagues.”

Meanwhile, the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) scheduled for April 18-21 in Paris is to now be held as an online congress.