COVID-19 threat in St George and Sutherland is far from over

Real threat: Sutherland Hospital's director of critical care Dr Grant Eruini-Bennett in one of the intensive care rooms designated for COVID-19 patients. Picture: Supplied
Real threat: Sutherland Hospital's director of critical care Dr Grant Eruini-Bennett in one of the intensive care rooms designated for COVID-19 patients. Picture: Supplied

In part 3 of our series, MERRYN PORTER examines how our hospitals treated COVID patients and what the future holds.

While St George and Sutherland Shire was certainly spared the full brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, those doctors and nurses who treated the sickest patients in our hospitals have no doubt about the severity of what they were dealing with.

Sutherland Hospital had 38 COVID-19 patients admitted, and treated another 115 at home through Telehealth.

Three of those patients were admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit, and one was ventilated. One patientdid not survive.

At St George Hospital, 33 COVID-19 patients were admitted, and a further 14 were treated at home.

Of those, seven patients were admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit, of which four were ventilated. One patient died.

Sutherland Hospital's critical care medicine director Dr Grant Eruini-Bennett said there was no doubt someone infected with COVID-19 had the potential to become very sick.

While the so-called cytokine storm, which causes the body's immune system to overreact, has been well documented as one of the deadly complications arising from COVID-19 infection, Dr Eruini-Bennett said the virus could also cause other complications.

"You do not have to have the cytokine storm to get very sick with COVID," he said. "Multi-system organ failure is another concern."

While COVID-19 most commonly affects the lungs, kidneys can also be badly affected.

As the infection progresses, organs in every system can begin to shut down, Dr Eruini-Bennett said.

"So we start having all these organs that begin to fail and it just goes from there and all your systems shut down," he said.

While he said it was "not uncommon" for patients to suffer these kinds of multi-organ failures as a result of other conditions, the fact COVID-19 was a novel, or new infection, meant doctors around the world had to race to find effective treatment plans using whatever medicines they had at their disposal.

Dr Eruini-Bennett said doctors in Sutherland and St George hospitals used a combination of antiviral agents, steroids and antibiotics, coupled with "supportive care".

"Then it is a matter of hoping that their body can overcome it," he said.

Doctors worldwide relied on "trial and error", and shared information, something never before seen to this magnitude in the medical world.

Drug trials and literature, including medical journals, were reported and updated "as they were going". He said everyone worked together to improve outcomes and share any information that might be useful.

While vaccines are looking promising, Dr Eruini-Bennett believes finding new treatments was equally important.

"We need to work out how to treat these people in the meantime," he said.

"We need a treatment. We cannot just rely on a vaccine as there is almost certainly going to be another virus.

"The delivery of antibiotics changed medicine. We need to do the same thing with antivirals."

Dr Eruini-Bennett also warns that while it is easy to get complacent because our case numbers are low, "we are not out of the woods", and people should remain vigilant as flare-ups could occur at any time.

"Certainly, from a professional point of view, we want people to continue to be careful," he said.

One thing is certain though; the weeks and months of preparation means St George and Sutherland hospitals are ready for any eventuality.

"I think we are probably better prepared now because we have gone through this whole process," he said.

Indeed, while the hospitals have scaled back the numbers of beds set aside for COVID patients and staff who were trained to treat them have returned to their old jobs, they remain ready and willing to step up if necessary.