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Hospitals in England Struggle in the Grip of Covid-19 – The New York Times


Jan 15, 2021

Share of beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on Jan. 12

Circles represent N.H.S. trusts and are sized by their bed capacity.






MiddlesbroughNewcastleBlackpoolStokeManchesterSheffieldKingston upon HullYorkLeedsLeicesterPeterboroughNottinghamBirminghamNorwichLutonLondonSouthamptonBournemouthReadingBrightonOxfordPortsmouthBristolPlymouth

Whittington Health in north London had 66 percent of its beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on Jan. 12. It’s one of 11 trusts that currently have more than half of beds filled with Covid patients.

Note: This data includes only general and acute beds, which make up the bulk of most hospitals’ beds, but excludes those in intensive care. An N.H.S. trust is made up of multiple hospitals and clinics in a local area. | Source: N.H.S. England

LONDON — The moment of reckoning British officials have warned about for months has arrived.

Hospitals across the country are stretched to the brink with Covid-19 patients, medical staff are at their breaking point, and the death toll is soaring.

Decisions about who dies and who is given a chance at survival through intensive care grow more challenging by the day. The amount of oxygen being given to severely ill patients has been reduced in a few hospitals to prevent a “catastrophic failure” of overstressed infrastructure. Some institutions are moving Covid-19 patients to hotels to free up beds. Ambulance crews frequently wait hours to offload patients. And medical workers on the front lines are reporting levels of emotional trauma that outstrip even those of combat veterans.

The number of hospitalized Covid-19 patients in England has risen sharply since Christmas and now dwarfs the spring peak by 70 percent, with almost 14,000 more patients in hospitals than on April 12.

There are 70 percent more Covid-19 patients in English hospitals now than at the spring peak

Daily count of hospitalized Covid-19 patients

5,00010,00015,00020,00025,00030,000AprilMayJuneJulyAug.Sept.Oct.Nov.Dec.Jan.April 1218,974 patientsJan. 1332,689 patientsApril 1218,974 patientsJan. 1332,689 patients

Source: Public Health England

Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned this week that there was a “very substantial” risk that many hospitals will soon run out of beds in intensive care units, even as the nation continues to set daily records for fatalities.

And as the strain on hospitals grows, death follows.

“Every region has more Covid patients in hospital than they did in the first wave,” said Christina Pagel, the director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London. She was co-author of a study on the impact of overcrowding at hospitals during the first wave of the pandemic in the spring and found that mortality rates rose some 20 percent at the height of the pandemic as compared with recent years.

While her team has yet to publish a more recent survey from December, she said it had found similar outcomes.

The situation is growing more dire by the day in the worst-affected hospitals. Eleven National Health Service trusts in England now have more than half of their beds occupied by Covid-19 patients. Whittington Health in north London has 66 percent of beds occupied by Covid-19 patients, the highest proportion of any N.H.S. trust in England. An N.H.S. trust is made up of multiple hospitals and clinics in a local area.

The data includes most hospitals’ beds excluding those in intensive care.

Eleven N.H.S. trusts have more than half of beds occupied by Covid-19 patients

Occupied by Covid-19 patients

Occupied by other patients


Whittington Health0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12Covid-19patientsNorth Middlesex0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12Medway0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12West Hertfordshire0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12Croydon Health Services0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12Homerton0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12Royal Berkshire0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12East Sussex Healthcare0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12Dartford and Gravesham0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12Lewisham and Greenwich0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12King’s College0%25%50%75%100%Nov. 17Jan. 12

Note: This data includes only general and acute beds, which make up the bulk of most hospitals’ beds, but excludes those in intensive care. N.H.S. trusts are sorted by highest proportion of beds occupied by Covid-19 patients on Jan. 12. | Source: N.H.S. England

While the health service in London is under the most immediate pressure, hospitals in other areas are starting to see a sharp rise in Covid-19 patients. In North Cumbria, Covid patients occupied 12 percent of beds on Dec. 25, but that has since risen to 42 percent.

Even as the number of new infections in England starts to show signs of slowing – with nearly 43,000 new cases reported on Jan. 13, compared with the recent high of more than 60,000 daily cases – the consequences of weeks of raging spread are being felt across the country.

Cases have started to decline in all regions of England

Cases per 100,000 people, by region

050100Nov. 17Jan. 137-day
London050100Nov. 17Jan. 13East of England050100Nov. 17Jan. 13North West050100Nov. 17Jan. 13South East050100Nov. 17Jan. 13West Midlands050100Nov. 17Jan. 13East Midlands050100Nov. 17Jan. 13South West050100Nov. 17Jan. 13North East050100Nov. 17Jan. 13Yorkshire and The Humber

Note: Regions sorted by highest number of confirmed cases per 100,000 people reported on Jan. 13.

Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London whose modeling led to the first lockdown in March, said there were signs that restrictions might finally be starting to have a significant impact.

“It has to be said this is not seen everywhere – both case numbers and hospital admissions are going up in many other areas – but overall, at a national level, we are seeing the rate of growth slow,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program on Thursday.

Mr. Johnson’s cabinet is considering even tighter restrictions. The country is not only trying to contain a more contagious variant of the virus first seen here in the fall, but also to fend off other highly infectious variants – one first detected in South Africa, and two in Brazil.

It has been three months since Britain introduced a tiered system of restrictions in mid-October, and a second national lockdown was put in place in early November. That was briefly lifted after four weeks, but then more restrictions were put in place after the discovery of the highly contagious variant, and a third national lockdown was announced on Jan. 4.

An almost empty street in London this month on the first day of England’s third national lockdown.Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Throughout most of that time, however, infections continued to rise.

Like a wave that builds in open waters, months of surging infections led to unprecedented levels of illness that are now cresting and slamming into the intensive care units run by an exhausted cadre of health care workers.

Professor Neil Greenberg, a forensic psychiatrist based at King’s College London, released a report this week that showed nearly half of the staff treating the most seriously ill patients reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety and depression.

The results are based on a survey of workers in intensive care units at nine hospitals and “pulse surveys” being conducted every six weeks that show that the situation now is as bad or worse than anytime in the pandemic.

St George’s Hospital in London, where the number of intensive care beds for the critically ill has been doubled.Victoria Jones/PAMPC, via Associated Press

By way of comparison, a similar survey of military veterans who had recently served in combat roles in Iraq or Afghanistan had a PTSD rate of 17 percent.

Prof. Greenberg, who spent more than two decades in the British military and now advises the defense department, said the results should serve as a wake-up call.

One of the greatest immediate challenges, he said in an interview, was dealing with “moral injury,” which results from having to make terrible choices regarding who lives and who dies.

“‘I tried my very best to save lives and do my best, but it was not enough,’” medical workers tell researchers, according to Mr. Greenberg. “And because of that, people died,” he added.

“I.C.U. staff are used to death, but this is different,” he said.

It is clear that England’s hospitals are under considerably more strain than during other recent winters. On Jan. 10, there were more than 4,600 patients in critical care beds, 40 percent more than was typical on that day over the last four winters.

There are far more patients in critical care beds this winter than in previous years

2,5003,0003,5004,0004,500Dec.Jan.Feb.MarchThis winterAverage2016 to 2019Range

Note: The daily average for previous winters is based on data from December 2016 to March 2020. The range shows the maximum and minimum number of patients in critical care beds on that day during the same time period. | Source: N.H.S. England

Ms. Pagel, who has also done extensive research on the operation of intensive care units during the pandemic, said that the public perception that only very old people were filling hospital beds was wrong.

Britain has a much higher bar than the United States for who should be given intensive intervention, making it less likely that people over 80 will be given a slot given the odds stacked against them when they reach a critical level of illness.

“Seventy-five percent of patients in I.C.U. are under the age of 70,” she said.

Ms. Pagel said that staff members were faced with almost impossible choices every day.

It is a problem that is being compounded by what she said were years of underfunding the system and a failure to address some of the issues that arose during the first wave of the pandemic.

Perhaps the most troubling example, she said, was the failure to improve the systems that deliver oxygen to patients.

Covid is a respiratory illness and it often attacks the lungs aggressively. So getting oxygen to patients is critical.

In a healthy person, the amount of oxygen carried by red blood cells exceeds 96 percent. Medical staff would normally aim to bring sick patients’ levels up to 95 percent.

But in many hospitals, Ms. Pagel said that has been reduced to 90 percent because of fear of a catastrophic failure of the system.

It is an engineering problem: To bring oxygen to patients, liquid oxygen needs to be piped into the ward and then converted to gas at the bedside. But the system was never designed to treat so many people at once or run around the clock for so long.

“Staff are literally pouring warm water on the pipes as they go so they don’t freeze and crack,” she said. “Then the system fails.”

While doctors have reported to her that 90 percent is sufficient for patients, she said, it leaves little room for reacting if someone’s condition worsens.

“It is O.K., but you are on a tightrope,” she said. And for a staff already facing unimaginable burdens, she said, this was one that could have been avoided.

A spokesperson for the N.H.S. said that there was little evidence to support an ideal target oxygen saturation for Covid-19 patients, and that national guidance indicated a target of 90 to 93 percent. The official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, said that roughly $20 million was spent on upgrades to oxygen delivery infrastructure in preparation for the winter.

Still, the N.H.S. has told hospitals they need to “carefully manage their oxygen flow and infrastructure.”

Ms. Pagel said that even when new admissions begin to fall – which experts hope will happen in the next few weeks – it will be slow and grueling.

“It takes a long time for the system to decompress,” she said. “You are not going to have dead bodies in the street. But you are going to have more illness and death.”


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