The last reserves: where the intensive care beds run out everywhere

Europe’s intensive care units are sometimes overcrowded with Covid patients. The comparison shows: A well-equipped health system like the one in Austria helps – but only to a limited extent.

753 dead within 24 hours. Almost 3,500 Covid patients in intensive care units. And four out of 100 patients who no longer leave the hospital alive.

Corona has Italy firmly under control, again. How could that happen?

One answer to this is a look at the health system. The fact that our southern neighbor is once again hit so hard by the pandemic that two thirds of the intensive care units are only occupied by Covid patients has a lot to do with equipment and staff: Italy has a little more than a third of the intensive care capacities per capita Austria and Germany even have four times as many intensive care beds.

In addition, the Italians – despite massive attempts at recruiting over the summer – still have too few doctors and nurses. “The staffing is practically the same as in the summer,” says Giovanni Leoni, Vice President of the Italian Medical Association.

Europe-wide problem

Of course, the problems with which Italy is struggling are not only to be found there. Intensive care beds and staff capacities are slowly running out across Europe. How quickly the last reserves are used up depends at first glance, of course, on the number of beds – only: Many beds alone are not enough to carry a society through a draining pandemic like the present one.

This can be clearly seen in the example of Belgium. According to the OECD, the state with a population of 11.5 million is one of the three best-equipped countries in Europe; There are 17.4 intensive care beds for every 100,000 inhabitants. That is not as much as in Austria – here it is 22.5 – but an enormous amount compared to other countries: Ireland, for example, has five intensive care beds per 100,000 inhabitants.

Nevertheless, Belgium’s intensive care units are fuller than any other in Europe: Almost three quarters of the intensive care beds there are occupied by Covid 19 patients. On the one hand, this has to do with the age structure of the patients; In Belgium there were countless cases in old people’s and nursing homes – and older patients are more likely to end up in intensive care units than younger ones. On the other hand, Belgium has been struggling with higher case numbers for longer than other countries – and this time factor also has an impact: According to experts, it takes at least eight weeks until the situation in intensive care units normalizes again – depending on when the lockdown measures start to take effect.

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Critical point

The load that Belgium currently still has – the peak of the second wave seems to have passed there – would not be sustainable in Austria. In this country, “the critical area is 40 percent”, as Herwig Ostermann, Head of Health Austria and member of the crisis team in the health department, recently said. We haven’t got there yet, especially since the number can be increased by a few hundred beds.

Of course, every country has the opportunity to increase capacities – this is a factor that somewhat skews the comparison of intensive care beds.

The debate within a country can also get into trouble as a result – this has been observed in Switzerland: there the Society for Intensive Care Medicine recently raised the alarm that all 876 certified intensive care beds were occupied – how can that be in one of the richest countries in the World? The simple explanation: You forgot to say that there are additional options with extra beds – a total of 1,600 more, which would mean almost tripling.


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