Australia could run out of ICU beds in just a week as hospitals are overwhelmed by the surging number of coronavirus infections, university researchers say.
The number of cases nationally surged to 3,050 on Friday morning as a Western Australian man in his 70s became the country’s 13th COVID-19 fatality.
Modelling by Macquarie University researchers has indicated Australia could reach ICU capacity as early as April 5 when the national number of cases is predicted to hit 22,000.
Australia has just 2,229 intensive care unit beds, according to a 2018 report from the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society.
The new study published by the Medical Journal of Australia compared real data of the infection in Italy to forecast how many Australians will need an intensive care unit bed in the coming weeks.
‘ICU capacity will be exceeded at around 22,000 COVID-19 cases sometime around April 5 if public health measures fail to curb the rate of growth,’ the study concludes.
Australia has around 2200 ICU beds currently, the MJA study says.
‘Over the coming months it’s going to take courage, brains and a concerted unified effort to manage the infection,’ Professor Nick Talley said.
‘While the results reported may represent a worst-case scenario and may not come to pass, we must better prepare, now,’ he wrote.
About 5 per cent of people with coronavirus become so seriously ill they need intensive care unit treatment to survive.
Dr Norman Swan had warned on Q&A on Monday night New South Wales could run out of beds by April 10.
Doctors and infectious disease experts are leading growing calls for Australia to be put into complete lockdown for up to six weeks to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Despite the country’s total number of COVID-19 cases jumping to 2,810 on Thursday night, with 13 dead, the Federal Government has so far stood firm on its refusal to close schools, confine people to their homes and close all non-essential businesses.
Infectious disease expert Professor Brendan Crabb said keeping only ‘essential services’ open was a drastic, but necessary step.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government had received no medical advice to close schools, despite one member of the expert panel guiding the government on the crisis campaigning for a full and immediate lockdown.
Mr Morrison has taken a staged approach to restrictions, including closing the borders to all but essential travel, but Professor Crabb, from Melbourne’s Burnet Institute, said the measures were too easily misinterpreted and called for a blanket lockdown for two to six weeks.
‘This is war, this is an actual war being fought. A lockdown-type mentality sends an unambiguous message that just cannot be misconstrued,’ Professor Crabb told The Age.
‘Everyday matters now… I would want to see very strong reasoning for why they (the government) would not go as hard as they can early.’
Full lockdown would prevent Australians from leaving their homes other than for essential reasons like shopping for groceries.
University of NSW professor Mary-Louise McLaws said supermarkets, banks and pharmacies would have to stay open.
‘Lockdown would have to be very severe for about three weeks,’ she told news.com.au.
‘During this time cases would recover and people would stop being infectious.’
A ‘response tracker’ set up by the University of Oxford gives Australia a ranking of just 40 out of 100 for the stringency of its lockdown.
The US and much of Europe and South America have an index of between 60 and 100.
UNSW’s Raina MacIntrye, who is part of the expert panel advising the government on its COVID-19 response, said schools should be closed as part of the new lockdown.
Prof MacIntrye said the majority of the panel agree an immediate, short-term lockdown was needed, but the advice was being ignored.
‘I was hoping we’d see a more comprehensive lockdown for a short period of time, but that is not the approach we’re taking. It’s more a trickle sort of approach, a little bit by bit, which won’t be as effective at stopping the transmission in the community,’ she told the ABC.
‘The more you slam on the brakes, the more control you’ll get of the epidemic, the more the cases will go down. The other alternative is to wait until things really get out of control and your health system starts to get infected.’
Professor MacIntrye said the economic hit to the country would be far greater in the long term if hardline action wasn’t taken now.
‘If you don’t control the disease, your economic losses are going to be far greater and the recovery time is going to be a lot longer,’ she said.
Advice was put together by a panel of academics from Australia’s Group of Eight Universities and handed to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Monday.
The government was urged to introduce ‘strong immediate and co-ordinated social distancing measures’ including shutting down schools and ramping up testing measures.
But the government’s current scope and scale of physical distancing measures is concerning the university panel.
The panellists are confident it will lead to a spike in cases and a higher numbers of deaths.
Professor MacIntyre believes it’s not too late to stabilise the projected death toll, but it can only be done if 70-80 per cent of people stop contacting each other.
The panel is one of a number to have been established to guide the federal government through the current health crisis.