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With officials estimating up to 150,000 Australians could die from the coronavirus under the government’s worst case scenario, does Australia have enough hospital beds to care for a rise in patients? 

The answer is complex. It depends on where the beds are needed, and whether we see a big spike in the number of cases presenting to hospitals, as was the case in Italy. This is why officials are doing everything they can to “flatten the curve” and avoid overwhelming the healthcare system. 

Dr Mukesh Haikerwal, former president of the Australian Medical Association, told ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night that Australia did not have the intensive care capacity to deal with a big spike in COVID-19 patients. 

“No we don’t have enough [ICU beds], if we get the spike,” he said. But if social distancing measures work and there is a slow rise in the number of patients, “we can potentially ride the wave”, he said. 

According to the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society, Australia has just over 2000 intensive care beds fitted with ventilators, which would be required for COVID-19 patients who become critically ill with serious respiratory illness. 

University of Sydney associate professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, who specialises in how governments manage disease outbreaks and pandemics, said that while Australia’s healthcare system was among the best in the world, there were limitations to its capacity.  

“We certainly don’t have enough intensive care beds to manage large numbers of cases of seriously ill people,” he said.

“But it’s important to appreciate that we have seen much slower transmission of the virus than elsewhere. So long as that continues on the same trajectory, and ideally slows further, then we should have enough beds across jurisdictions to manage cases we are seeing.”

But what about the private system? 

State governments are trying to shift elective surgery over to the private sector to free up space in public hospitals for a potential rise in COVID-19 cases. Whether private hospitals are able to help meet demand during a surge will depend on where the beds are needed. 

Michael Roff, head of the Australian Private Hospital Association, said some states were better equipped to work closely with the private sector than others. 

“There is spare capacity in the private sector, but matching that up to what’s needed is the thing that the state governments are currently trying to do,” he said. 

According to Roff, some states like Queensland already have systems in place to allow for a quick transfer of patients over to the private system in the event of a surge. Meanwhile, the Victorian government has announced a $60 million package aimed at pushing elective surgeries through the public and private systems before the pandemic peaks.

State governments can also, in very extreme circumstances, commandeer the facilities of a private hospital. But this would be a last resort, Roff said.

“While they may be able to take over facilities, they wouldn’t be able to take over staff. So that’s why they would want to be engaging constructively [in the first instance].”