Intensive care units in England could run out of beds within two weeks, study finds

  Clinicians in Intensive Care Unit  Credit: Calleamanecer (WikiCommons)

Intensive care unit (ICU) occupancy is likely to increase dramatically over the next few weeks, suggests research published by a team at the University of Cambridge. Their work suggests that if the current exponential growth of COVID-19 infections continues, then within two weeks, five out of seven commissioning regions in England will have more critically ill COVID-19 patients than can be accommodated with ICU beds normally available. 

Since emerging in November 2019, there have been over 267,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 coronavirus and over 11,200 deaths (WHO figures 22 March). While COVID-19 generally causes mild symptoms, some patients may develop severe lung inflammation. This may be severe enough to require intensive care for advanced, invasive mechanical ventilation (‘life support’).

Mechanical ventilation is a specialised procedure that can only be provided on an intensive care unit. The number of intensive care beds is limited and the equipment and specialist staffing required makes it difficult to create more ICU beds easily/quickly. In Northern Italy, which has been particularly severely affected, the large volumes of patients has overwhelmed ICU capacity.

“If mechanical ventilation cannot be provided to patients who need it, they will die,” says Dr Ari Ercole from the Division of Anaesthesia at the University of Cambridge. “ICU capacity is a crucial concern as additional capacity takes time to create both in terms of staffing and equipment.”

Dr Ercole and colleagues from Cambridge’s Division of Anaesthesia and Department of Computer Science and Technology have built a real-time computer model to try and make the earliest possible predictions of ICU demand in England. Their aim is to give an early warning of when or whether capacity will become critical and give as much advance notice as possible to help build capacity.

Because of the urgent implications of the model’s results, the team has made its study available online early. The research has not been peer-reviewed. All source code has been made freely-available online as has an online version of the model which is updated as data comes in.

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Image: Clinicians in Intensive Care Unit


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

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