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‘A struggle for each bed’: How Covid admissions impact hospitals in Switzerland

'A struggle for each bed': How Covid admissions impact hospitals in Switzerland
Covid patients in Swiss ICUs impact the entire health system. Photo my Mario Tama / AFP
Coronavirus patients impact not only the capacity of intensive care units, but also the general functioning of hospitals and Switzerland as a whole. Here’s how.

The number of Covid-related hospital admissions has been rising steadily in Switzerland; from 183 intensive beds occupied in hospitals on August 19th to 237 on August 27th.

“During the second wave, 17 percent of all hospitalised patients required treatment in an intensive care unit. Now, it’s somewhere between 25 and 30 percent. It makes a huge difference”, Urs Karrer, member of the Covid-19 Task Force and the head doctor at the cantonal hospital in Winthertur, said in an interview with Blick newspaper on Sunday.

READ MORE: Swiss hospitals: Sharp increase in the number of Covid patients in intensive care

Nearly all of these patients are unvaccinated, Karrer added.

“Without the Covid, these beds would be occupied by other patients. In addition, while some patients only stay in intensive care for two or three days, those who are there because of the Covid stay 15 days on average. It’s a struggle for every bed”, he added.

In all, there are 850 ICU beds in Swiss hospitals, only 169 of which remained unoccupied on August 27th, according to data from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).

But the impact of the increased number of cases extends far beyond the ICUs; all the other hospital services must be reorganised to accommodate Covid patients, taking vital resources away from other services.

“Currently, cardiologists and oncologists must help the Covid service. This means they can provide less care for patients with cancer or heart disease”, Karrer noted.

Another fallout is that some hospitals must cancel outpatient procedures – for instance, Basel University Hospital has already started delaying elective surgeries to make room for coronavirus patients, while St. Gallen’s cantonal hospital is no longer scheduling new operations. 

This situation influences political decisions that impact Switzerland as a whole: as more patients occupy hospital beds, more measures to keep health and intensive care sector from becoming saturated could be implemented.

“If hospital admissions continue to rise as sharply as they have recently, hospitals could be overstretched within just a few weeks. The Federal Council wants to be able to act quickly if necessary”, the government said in a statement on August 25th.

“If hospitals become overstretched, the number of deaths among Covid sufferers would increase and non-urgent medical procedures would have to be postponed. Healthcare provision for all would suffer as a result”, the government added.

To prevent this from happening, the Federal Council is considering requiring people to show Covid certificates to enter all indoor areas of bars, restaurants, gyms, museums and private events — measures similar to those already practiced by most of Switzerland’s neighbours.

Have your say: Should Switzerland make Covid certificate mandatory to enter restaurants?

Additionally, as a way to keep hospitals from exceeding their capacities, a number of health officials are urging the Federal Council to reintroduce the travel quarantine requirement for unvaccinated people coming to Switzerland.

Right now, a vaccination certificate or a negative test result are sufficient to be allowed into the country.

Hpwever, Nicolas Müller, Chief Physician at the Infectious Diseases Clinic at Zurich University Hospital, said that “holidays play a big role” in skyrocketing infections.

“We treat a lot of vacationers returning from travel”, he noted. 

And Lukas Engelberger, president of the association of cantonal health directors, also stated that “we must seriously consider reintroducing quarantine on return from travel”.

READ MORE: Could Switzerland reintroduce post-travel quarantine?

At this point, the Federal Council is still debating which, if any, measures should be reimplemented, with the decision expected on or before September 1st.

It will be based on whether Covid-related hospital admissions continue growing or are dropping.

What would cause the number of hospitalisations to decrease?

As health officials have been repeating, the only way to keep the situation from worsening — and hospitals from being saturated — is vaccination.

To date, just over 51 percent of Switzerland’s residents are fully inoculated with two doses of the vaccine, but that number is not sufficient to keep the highly contagious and dominant Delta variant from spreading.

“Switzerland is incredibly privileged. We have the best vaccines and we have enough to protect everyone. If enough people were vaccinated, hospitals would not be under such a heavy load”, Karrer pointed out.

He added that each person who refuses to get vaccinated “shares the responsibility of prolonging the pandemic for all and overburdening hospital staff. There is currently no other disease for which the probability of ending up in hospital is as high as for Covid”.


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