ICU nurse preparing a patient bed.

What is the ICU and why do COVID-19 patients end up there?

Media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic often mentions intensive care units (ICUs) in hospitals and how filled they are with COVID-19 patients. So what is an ICU, and why should you care that so many COVID-19 patients end up there?

Nasser Zakieh, MD, provides some insight about the ICU. Dr. Zakieh is a critical care medicine and pulmonology specialist for OSF HealthCare Little Company of Mary Medical Center Outpatient Services in Evergreen Park, Illinois.

What is the ICU?

“The ICU is a specialized department in the hospital, staffed by highly skilled physicians, nurses and more to provide care for the sickest patients,” Dr. Zakieh said. “These patients have a life-threatening disease or injury that requires constant monitoring and treatment.”

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The patient-to-staff ratio in an ICU is lower than that of other hospital departments because each patient requires much more attention than a patient on a general medical floor. If you are a patient in the ICU, Dr. Zakieh said, it means that your condition is life-threatening.

“Being in the ICU is a life-changing experience for patients,” Dr. Zakieh said. “The care teams provide the most sophisticated medical care, and we try to be as compassionate and empathic as we can, at the same time prioritizing treatment and monitoring. Many of the medications we give and the interventions we perform are not allowed outside the ICU because they need constant monitoring and constant treatment.”

What does this have to do with COVID-19?

People suffering from COVID-19 can have difficulty breathing. In severe cases, the problem gets so dangerous that people can’t properly oxygenate their body and they require a ventilator, also known as a respirator – a literal breathing machine. When you need a machine to actually breathe for you, you require constant attention from multiple skilled caregivers.

Plus, because COVID-19 patients are so contagious, they must be separated from other ICU patients, who are already dealing with health concerns without adding COVID-19 into the mix. So, hospitals with greater patient numbers often have to set up and staff separate ICUs for COVID-19 patients and non-COVID-19 patients, exhausting available resources.

“Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the best way to avoid the ICU is to not get exposed to the coronavirus that causes it,” Dr. Zakieh said. “It’s very difficult to predict who will end up in the ICU and who will not. We have treated COVID patients of all ages in our ICU. We’ve had young patients who nearly died with COVID.”

Last Updated: April 18, 2022

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About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and was a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: COVID-19