InDaily InDaily

Support independent Journalism Donate Subscribe
Support independent journalism


A glimpse inside a COVID-19 ward


Rising numbers of COVID-19 patients are entering Sydney hospitals. Peter Wark and Lucy Morgan explain the reality and resourcing of their care.

Print article

The latest figures available show there are 1,189 people admitted with COVID-19 to hospitals in New South Wales, with 222 of them in intensive care units (ICU), 94 needing ventilation.

This week there were over 9,700 people with new COVID infections. That means about one in every 10 people with COVID are sick enough to need admission to hospital.

Recently released modelling predicts COVID admissions in NSW will rise steeply over the coming weeks and will peak in mid-October. NSW has also just announced plans for some restrictions to ease once 70% of adults in the state are fully vaccinated, a date also expected to land in October.

Here’s what this will look like for patients admitted with COVID and for hospital staff caring for them.

Here’s what happens to the lungs

Healthy lungs are like soft, fresh sponge cake, wrapped in two layers of cling wrap (the pleura), all sealed in the cake tin of the chest wall.

But with severe COVID, people develop pneumonia. This is when the spongey lung fills with fluid and becomes stiff and the muscles we use to breathe are weakened by inflammation that rages in all tissues of the body. The major consequence of this is an inability to breathe properly, a reduction in oxygen levels and inadequate oxygen supply to the body.

Severe pneumonia is usually managed in the ICU. In this pandemic, the sheer number of critically breathless patients means the intensive level of respiratory care they require is being delivered outside ICU, in wards designed for patients with other health problems.

So most of the patients admitted to hospital with COVID are actually managed by lung specialists and infectious diseases physicians with a huge input from our junior doctors in training.

COVID pneumonia is what kills patients who develop severe COVID.

About one in five develop severe breathlessness. This is when the stiffened lungs are full of fluid and every breath requires extra effort.

This severe breathlessness is hard to explain until you experience it. But it’s relentless, exhausting and frightening. Patients describe it as like “an elephant on your chest”, “a suffocation”, or there not being “enough air in the room”.

People with COVID pneumonia need oxygen but oxygen alone isn’t enough to help with severe breathing difficulties and COVID pneumonia. Those who are most unwell may need intubation. This is when we insert a tube into the lungs connected to a machine that does the work of breathing, via mechanical ventilation. This happens in the ICU.

Expert care in an acute COVID ward is critical. Patients successfully managed will have better odds of a shorter hospital stay and not needing intubation, with its increased risk of dying.

We’re also worried about filling up the available ICU beds — a clearly finite resource.

We want to avoid intubation

As the pandemic has swept across the globe, we’ve rapidly learnt from our colleagues overseas about supporting the breathing of patients with COVID pneumonia.

Our treatments are aimed at helping patients recover more quickly and reduce the need for mechanical ventilation. Measures include:

These treatments are labour intensive and have long been available in the ICU where nursing to patient ratios are higher.

However, in NSW, hospitals with the highest current numbers of patients with severe COVID (such as Liverpool, Nepean and Westmead) have had to rapidly adapt their wards to deliver this treatment outside the ICU.

The published modelling predicts such treatments will spill further into the COVID wards of every hospital in NSW.

We need the staff to manage this

Treatments like proning and CPAP are time-consuming and require experienced doctors, nurses and support staff.

Ideally, every patient with severe COVID pneumonia should have at least one nurse each for every hour of the day — a 1:1 nursing ratio.

Staff need to know when to start these treatments. They also need to know how to read the signs of deterioration that signal the patient, who despite everyone’s best efforts, will need intubation.

Fitting the CPAP mask and adjusting the oxygen requires experience and training. Staff help patients to eat and drink, go to the toilet. They administer complex medications, comfort the grieving, frightened and confused.

They do this while dressed in a hot gown, wearing goggles and gloves and a tight, fitted N95 mask. Every single clinical interaction is stressful and intense.

Plans are under way

Plans are under way to manage the expected surge in cases.

Staff are being trained and we are preparing to get enough equipment where it’s needed. The problem is this will go on for many more weeks, staff will get tired, physically and emotionally, and we don’t want this to be any worse than it must be.

If you want to help, get vaccinated and stay at home. Please put up with the restrictions and lockdowns for a little longer.

Now is the time for everyone to come together so we come out of this in one piece and can continue to offer the best of medical care.

Peter Wark, Conjoint Professor, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle and Lucy Morgan, Clinical Associate Professor, Concord and Nepean clinical schools, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Make a comment View comment guidelines

Local News Matters

Media diversity is under threat in Australia – nowhere more so than in South Australia. The state needs more than one voice to guide it forward and you can help with a donation of any size to InDaily. Your contribution goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. Please click below to help InDaily continue to uncover the facts.

Donate today
Powered by PressPatron

More Opinion stories

Loading next article