‘Do I cry about it? Yes’: In UK, COVID stretches ICUs to limit

As the coronavirus spreads rapidly, hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, making patients and doctors increasingly anxious.

Clinical staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE) as they care for a patient at the intensive care unit at Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, Britain, on May 5, 2020 [Neil Hall/Pool/Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – When the pandemic struck the UK in March last year, Peter was not too worried about catching COVID.

“I was healthy and fastidiously followed the restrictions,” he told Al Jazeera from his home in Sussex, a southeastern county.

The 55-year-old social worker says he had not seen a doctor in 20 years and taken just a handful of sick days in his 35 years of work.

But in early April, he came down with flu-like symptoms and his health quickly deteriorated.

Within a few days, it became increasingly difficult for him to breathe. Just over a week after his symptoms hit, he was strapped into an ambulance for Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton.

“Everything was moving so fast. It was surreal. It was like I was looking down on myself, like watching someone on TV going through it,” he said.

At 5pm he was rushed into a crowded emergency room and by midnight he was placed in an intensive care unit (ICU).

Peter and none of the patients around him could breathe on their own, relying on tubes down their throats to pump oxygen into their lungs from a ventilator.

“I was only able to cope because the staff were so understanding. They tried at all times to keep me calm,” he said.

Each morning and evening, doctors and nurses updated him on his health and their next steps for his treatment.

His wife was unable to visit him due to the COVID restrictions but they spoke on the phone daily. She would later recall how he talked “gibberish” during their conversations, which he now only hazily remembers.

Five days later, he was sent home, 30 pounds (13kg) lighter having completely lost his appetite.

“I was lucky the virus didn’t reach a more dangerous level before I went to hospital,” he said. “It wasn’t too late.”

Compared with when Peter went to the ICU during the first spike in cases in April, COVID-related hospital admissions in England have risen by 62 percent.

A hospital cleaner wearing full PPE (personal protective equipment), including a face mask, long apron and gloves as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, cleans an intensive care unit (ICU) ward treating patients with COVID-19, at Frimley Park Hospital in Frimley, southwest England on May 22, 2020 [Steve Parsons/Pool/AFP]

The country currently has more than 30,000 COVID patients in hospital.

On January 4, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced another national lockdown in England, closing schools and asking residents to stay home for all but a few necessary reasons, as a new, more infectious variant gripped parts of the UK.

“This variant is not being controlled by the measures that were in place before Christmas,” said Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, describing the mutation as “extremely worrying” for the UK and Europe, where it is already spreading.

“Although there are some encouraging signs that the increase in infections may be plateauing, the virus is still circulating at a very high level,” he said.

The seven-day average number of new cases has dropped, with the figure now at 48,565 compared to 59,652 the previous week.

McKee blamed the latest spike on a “series of failures by the government”.

“They have consistently delayed implementing measures that were clearly necessary, which allowed the virus to get out of control.”

ICU doctor Charlotte Summers says she has been overwhelmed with emotion during the pandemic [Courtesy: Charlotte Summers]

Dr Charlotte Summers, 46, an ICU consultant, works shifts as long as 17 hours in full PPE, making the work “exhausting, hot and slower”.

She believes a July report by the Academy of Sciences outlining the challenges ahead and measures to mitigate the crisis “wasn’t heeded well enough” by the government.

Summers, a member of the Intensive Care Society, a charity supporting ICU staff across the UK, splits her time between researching COVID treatments and working in hospital. One day she is conducting lab experiments using human cell models and the next she is caring for ICU patients.

The ICU, where the average mortality rate has been 40 percent during the pandemic in the UK, is an “emotionally challenging environment” Summers told Al Jazeera. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

“Is it miserable sometimes? Yes. Do I cry about it? Yes. Anybody who tells you they’re not untouched by the sheer awfulness of the pandemic is being untruthful. When we stop being moved by what we’re seeing, we stop being human.

“I’m seeing patients who are my age and who have no other illnesses that we can find. The idea that it’s only frail, elderly people and that no one else has to worry is not true.”

The UK has the world’s second-highest number of deaths from the virus per million people in the last seven days, after the Czech Republic. As of 16 January, 88,747 people had died from the virus in the UK.

Challenges for the NHS

The rise in admissions combined with longer periods that patients remain in hospital is pushing the NHS to the brink.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty wrote in the Sunday Telegraph on January 10 that the NHS faces the “most dangerous situation in living memory”.

Some hospitals are currently overwhelmed.

“It is likely that we will see major crises [in the health service] in some parts of the country,” said McKee.


Peter’s departure from the hospital was far from the end of his battle with COVID.

For more than a month, he struggled to regularly breathe, battled severe fatigue and mental health issues.

His anxiety was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

“I could deal with stress before without needing medication and I’ve been through trauma,” he said. “It’s like a switch flicked in my head.”

Falling asleep was often impossible and some nights he only slept an hour.

It was not until September, five months after his symptoms began, that he was able to return to his job full time.

Even today, lingering fatigue means he has to take breaks during work.

He is not alone.

According to the Office for National Statistics, one in 10 people with COVID experience symptoms for 12 weeks or longer. Researchers from the University of Oxford found that people who had COVID had a twice greater risk of developing a mood or anxiety disorder.

But on Tuesday, Peter will join the 2.33 million people across England who have had the first dose of the COVID vaccination.

For him, like millions around the country, receiving the jab seems to mark a step towards the return of normal life.

“I’ll feel a lot safer, especially knowing people can get the virus twice.”

Source: Al Jazeera