'We don't have an unending capacity'
BISASOR-MCKENZIE... once we reach to a certain point, wecan't keep adding beds
CMO cites staffing challenges with adding more beds to accommodate COVID patients

AS the country's COVID-19 numbers continue to balloon and more people seek medical attention, the health ministry has indicated that simply adding more bed spaces in public hospitals may not be as simple a solution as it appears.

At a press conference going into the weekend, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie stressed that the addition of beds brings with it other challenges.

“Once we reach to a certain point we can't keep adding beds because there are other issues that contribute to making a bed space and one of that is staff. So, no matter how many beds you put in you have to find the staff, and we know that we have challenges where that is concerned,” she explained.

In December, Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the country that as the Government braced for the spike in cases that was expected post-Christmas, at some point there would be a cap on the number of beds available to COVID-19 patients.

The CMO pointed out that overall, more than 700 beds were designated for COVID patients from the total public health capacity of about 5,000, but that as an increasing number of beds become occupied by COVID-19 patients, this has begun to impact general admissions, which is what led to the decision for hospitals to switch to emergencies-only mode.

“We don't have an unending capacity,” she remarked.

At the same time, she did point out that right now, there is no overwhelming demand for high-dependency bed spaces — such as those for pregnant patients — but it is expected that the public health system could come under pressure in terms of the staffing required to manage those spaces.

As the numbers climbed over the last couple of weeks, so has the need for mechanical ventilation, with the number of patients in need of high volumes of oxygen also increasing significantly in days.

“These are persons who are demanding up to 60 litres of oxygen. When you go into hospital and somebody puts a nasal cannula on you, you're usually getting maybe about 5-10 litres of oxygen, [but] when persons go on high-flow nasal oxygen, they are demanding up to 60 litres of oxygen per minute,” Dr Bisasor-McKenzie explained.

The increase in the number of seriously ill persons has been evident, notwithstanding the Omicron variant having been said to be a much milder illness than other strains.

“Over the last couple of days we are seeing the critically ill persons increasing and we are seeing a very sharp uptick in the number of severely ill persons. As these numbers increase, then we are going to have not just a challenge with bed occupancy, but a challenge with oxygen supplies,” the CMO said.

Moreover, some hospitals have indicated that the shortage of critical care nurses will affect the public health system's ability to manage this fourth wave of COVID-19. The CMO noted that, again, the country is seeing an increase in the number of nurses who are migrating — particularly post-graduate trained nurses — to take up jobs overseas.“The challenge right now is not so much space or equipment, but staff. We could reach to a point where we are challenged for space if our numbers continue to rise,” she said.

There were 838 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 recorded over 24 hours, the ministry's clinical summary for Saturday said, bringing the overall cases since March 2020 to 119, 565. The country also reported 22 virus-related deaths, occurring between January 11 and 21. Those in hospital moved down to 486 from 553 on Friday. The majority of cases — 32,059 — have been recorded in Kingston and St Andrew, followed by St Catherine with 21,819. The virus has so far claimed the lives of 2,594 Jamaicans. Three hundred and seventy-seven of those deaths are under investigation.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Observer senior reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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