Hospital beds shortage for very ill Covid-19 patients a possibility, actuarial body warns


 At least one-million people might require acute hospital care if there is sustained community transmission of Covid-19 in SA, according to projections by an expert from the Actuarial Society of SA (Assa).

The forecast raises the spectre of a looming shortage of beds for critically ill patients, as only about 1,000 of the 85,000 beds in the public sector are set aside for intensive care, according to Assa member Shivani Ranchod, CEO of Percept Health.

There were approximately 40,000 hospital beds in the private sector in 2016/2017, she said.

The health department had not responded to Business Day’s request for hospital bed figures at the time of publication, but Wits health economist Alex van den Heever estimated that there were approximately 4,960 critical care beds in the private sector in 2017. He estimated there were approximately 2,240 critical care beds in the state sector, which unlike the private sector were currently running at high occupancy rates, topping 80%. Private sector occupancy rates were approximately half that figure, he said.

The projection of one-million people requiring acute care in hospital was based on a conservative estimate that only 40% of the population caught Covid-19, and 5% were critically ill, Ranchod said. Many epidemiologists are projecting much greater infection rates, of up to 70% of the population.

SA's health system was not equipped to deal with a sudden surge in the number of patients requiring acute care, and so it was vital to slow the spread of the virus as much as possible, said Ranchod. Spreading the number of cases out over a longer period of time would place less strain on hospital services, which are buckling in hard-hit countries such as Italy.

“It clearly illustrates that we need to combine public and private capacity to have the best shot at dealing with this, not to mention slowing down the impact on acute facilities,” she said.

Covid-19 is a potentially severe respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus called SARS-CoVid-2, and there is currently no vaccine or cure. The rapid spread of Covid-19 has been fuelled by the fact that the vast majority (80%) of cases are mild, which means people remain mobile and continue to spread the virus, she said.

“It is therefore critically important that anyone who suspects they have the virus self-isolates,” she said.

As of Wednesday morning, SA’s tally of Covid-19 cases stood at 116, including 14 cases of local transmission, according to health minister Zweli Mkhize.

Globally, the number of confirmed cases rose past 198,000, according to data compiled by the Johns Hopkins University Centre for Systems Science and Engineering.

Global deaths topped 7,950, while more than 81,960 people had recovered, it said.

Italy, which has had the second-biggest outbreak after China, had recorded more than 31,500 cases, 2,500 deaths and 2,940 recoveries by Wednesday. It has a population of 60.5-million people.


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