Gavin King

Tropic Now editor

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Cairns Hospital prepares for coronavirus patient surge


Cairns Hospital's small Intensive Care Unit of just 16 beds is making preparations to rapidly expand to cope with the expected surge of critical coronavirus patients over coming weeks and months. 

Despite the 16-bed facility being at capacity during normal hospital operations - including a large volume of critical influenza patients - Tropic Now has confirmed planning is well advanced to increase the number of ICU beds as required.

Hospitals and ICU facilities around the world are being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients requiring life-saving respiratory support, with medical staff in countries like Italy forced to make life-or-death decisions on which patients to treat. 

Other contingency plans will be activated as part of the predicted coronavirus outbreak, including cancelling non-urgent elective surgery and creating an 'isolation zone'/fever clinic by relocating other wards and beds to temporary locations within hospital grounds.


Cairns Hospital's ICU facility was stretched beyond capacity in the 2018-19 financial year, recording a 2.75% increase in admissions over the previous year and treating 1083 patients in just 16 ICU beds during the 12-month period. 

Under normal operations, the Cairns ICU facility can become so overloaded that ICU patients are occasionally transferred to Townsville Hospital's ICU, with just 5% of ICU patients considered "planned admissions".

A large percentage arrive in ICU from the Emergency Department, with a patient mix ranging from critical influenza cases to car crash victims, along with tropical infectious diseases and even the occasional near-fatal snake bite.

Patients from Papua New Guinea, the Torres Strait, Cape York are treated in the ICU, along with residents from Cairns, the Tablelands and other towns in Far North Queensland.

The hospital's preparations to treat coronavirus patients includes how staff will 'juggle' the range of other non-coronavirus patients requiring ICU treatment.


In January this year, speaking before the coronavirus pandemic, Cairns Hospital's ICU director Dr Drew Wenck told News Corp that influenza was "by far" the biggest contributor to high patient numbers in 2018-19:

“A typical stay in ICU is around two days depending on how sick they are, but the longest can be up to two weeks," Dr Wenck said.

“At the end of the day, we cope because we have to cope. There’s no other intensive care unit in the city. It’s just us.”

“Gone are the days of someone coming into the hospital overnight for a tune-up.

"You’ve got to be really sick to get into hospital these days and then we discharge you as quick as we can to make room for the next patient."


If Queensland Health modelling proves correct, up to 14,000 people in Far North Queensland will require assistance of some kind from the health system over the next six months.

An estimated 5% of those 14,000 people may require intensive care treatment - about 700 people on top of the 1000+ patients who require ICU treatment in any given year.


Pharmacy Guild Queensland President and Alive Pharmacy chain co-owner Trent Twomey told Tropic Now that people need to remain calm and follow the advice of health professionals and authorities.

Mr Twomey said anyone experiencing non-emergency symptoms similar to the common cold must not leave their homes to seek assistance, and instead call their local pharmacy, GP or hospital for advice and help first.

"People need to be reminded that COVID-19 is a variant of the common cold - it's not a variant of influenza, which means 80% of people who contract coronavirus will experience mild and moderate symptoms," he said.

"If you are sick enough to need medical intervention, do not leave your home - instead you need to call for help and ask for further directions and assistance."