Crowded hospitals, overworked doctors, far too little protective material. The dramatic reports from northern Italy from the end of February prompted the Swiss authorities to greatly expand healthcare capacities. The army had several thousand hospital and medical soldiers deployed. The hospitals converted operating theaters into intensive care units. The Federal Office of Public Health ordered hundreds of additional ventilators. Nobody knew whether the capacities would be sufficient for all patients.
It is now clear that there are more than enough beds. While the number of daily new infections is already falling again, two thirds of the beds made available for Covid cases are empty in Swiss hospitals, says Rolf Gilgen, President of the Association of Swiss Hospital Directors. “The big wave that was feared did not come.” The example of Zurich shows how large the reserves are. The hospitals in the most populous canton had 624 beds ready for Covid patients on Wednesday afternoon. 475 of them were empty. Only 50 Zurich corona patients had to be ventilated. Fortunately, this is far from the worst-case scenarios outlined by epidemiologists at the beginning of the pandemic.
The army also expects the situation to ease further and is already planning to end its pandemic operation for the civilian authorities. The military is still in use in around fifty hospitals.
Arrangements for a second contagion wave
The “top hospital director” Rolf Gilgen emphasizes that it is too early to give the all-clear. Especially in the intensive care places, it is important to maintain the capacities longer, since seriously ill people often have to be treated for weeks. In the event of a renewed wave of infection, the hospitals would have to be able to increase the capacities for corona patients within two to three days. “We have to be careful not to fall from one extreme to the other.”
However, the high number of empty beds increases the pressure on the Federal Council to allow hospitals to treat patients who are not emergencies as soon as possible.
The conference of the cantonal health directors (GDK) pleads for the first step to make treatments possible again without an overnight stay in hospital. If the reintroduction of outpatient consultations is successful, relaxation can be extended to inpatient interventions with a limited length of stay, says GDK Secretary General Michael Jordi. The condition for this is that the patients do not need scarce drugs that are used for the therapy of Covid patients. Movable interventions with a probable stay in the intensive care unit should not be allowed until the very end.
The cantons are calling on the Federal Council to adopt a uniform procedure across Switzerland. There should be no cantonal patchwork like the introduction of the lockdown. Otherwise, medical treatments could lead to a kind of shopping tourism.
No broad criticism of overcapacity
The question remains why the Swiss healthcare system has so far been underutilized by the corona pandemic than the hospitals of other industrialized countries.
Michael Jordi of the Health Directors’ Conference sees the early ban on major Federal Council events in European comparison as a possible reason for the relatively rapid flattening of the Covid contagion curve. The high level of trust of the Swiss population in the authorities also contributed to the fact that the measures had taken effect quickly.
Criticism of overcapacity in the healthcare system is currently barely audible. SVP parliamentary group leader and health politician Thomas Aeschi, on behalf of his party, calls for a gradual relaxation of the lockdown from April 27. But now is not the time to criticize the procedure and any mistakes made by the health authorities.