How hospital staff navigate impossible ethical decisions during a COVI

Hospitals had been overflowing with sick and dying sufferers whereas ventilators and private protecting gear (PPE) had been briefly provide. Sufferers sat for hours or days in ambulances and hallways, ready for a hospital mattress to open up. Some never made it to the intensive care unit mattress they wanted.

I’m an infectious illness specialist and bioethicist on the College of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus. I labored with a crew nonstop from March into June 2020, serving to my hospital and state prepare for the large inflow of COVID-19 circumstances we anticipated may inundate our healthcare system.

When well being methods are transferring towards disaster situations, the primary steps we take are to do all we are able to to preserve and reallocate scarce assets. Hoping to maintain delivering high quality care—regardless of shortages of house, staff, and stuff—we do issues like canceling elective surgical procedures, transferring surgical staff to inpatient models to offer care, and holding sufferers within the emergency division when the hospital is full. These are referred to as “contingency” measures. Although they are often inconvenient for sufferers, we hope sufferers gained’t be harmed by them.

However when a disaster escalates to the purpose that we merely can’t present vital providers to everybody who wants them, we’re compelled to carry out disaster triage. At that time, the care supplied to some sufferers is admittedly lower than prime quality—generally a lot much less so.


The care supplied below such excessive ranges of useful resource shortages known as “crisis standards of care.” Disaster requirements can influence using any sort of useful resource that’s in extraordinarily quick provide, from staff (like nurses or respiratory therapists) to stuff (like ventilators or N95 masks) to house (like ICU beds).

And since the care we are able to present during disaster requirements is way decrease than regular high quality for some sufferers, the method is meant to be totally clear and formally allowed by the state.

What triage seems like in observe

Within the spring of 2020, our plans assumed the worst—that we wouldn’t have enough ventilators for all of the individuals who would absolutely die with out one. So we targeted on how you can make ethical determinations about who ought to get the final ventilator, as if any determination like that may very well be ethical.

However one key reality about triage is that it’s not one thing you determine to do or not. Should you don’t do it, then you might be deciding to behave as if issues are regular, and whenever you run out of ventilators, the subsequent particular person to return alongside doesn’t get one. That’s nonetheless a type of triage.

Now think about that each one the ventilators are taken and the subsequent one who wants one is a younger lady with a complication delivering her child.

That’s what we needed to speak about in early 2020. My colleagues and I didn’t sleep a lot.


To keep away from that situation, our hospital and many others proposed utilizing a scoring system that counts up what number of of a affected person’s organs are failing and the way badly. That’s as a result of folks with a number of organs failing aren’t as likely to survive, which implies they shouldn’t be given the final ventilator if somebody with higher odds additionally wants it.

Luckily, earlier than we had to make use of this triage system that spring, we received a reprieve. Masks-wearing, social distancing, and business closures went into effect, and so they labored. We bent the curve. In April 2020, Colorado had some days with almost 1,000 COVID-19 cases per day. However by early June, our day by day case charges had been within the low 100s. COVID-19 circumstances would surge again in August as these measures had been relaxed, after all. And Colorado’s surge in December 2020 was particularly extreme, however we subdued these subsequent waves with the identical fundamental public well being measures.

Variety of COVID-19 sufferers hospitalized from Feb. 24, 2020 to Dec. 20, 2021. [Image: Our World in]After which, what on the time felt like a miracle occurred: A protected and efficient vaccine became available. First it was only for folks at highest threat, however then it turned out there for all adults by later within the spring of 2021. We had been simply over one 12 months into the pandemic, and other people felt like the top was in sight. So, masks went by the wayside.

Too quickly, because it turned out.

A haunting reminder of 2020

By December 2021, right here in Colorado, hospitals had been crammed to the brim once more. Some had been even over 100% capability. However right this moment, some members of the general public have little endurance for sporting masks or avoiding massive crowds. Individuals who’ve been vaccinated don’t assume it’s honest that they need to be compelled to cancel vacation plans, when over 80% of the people hospitalized for COVID-19 are the unvaccinated. And of those that aren’t vaccinated . . . nicely, many appear to consider they only aren’t in danger, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

So, hospitals round our state are but once more dealing with triage-like decisions on a day by day foundation.

In a few necessary methods, the state of affairs has modified. In the present day, our hospitals have loads of ventilators, however not enough staff to run them. Stress and burnout are taking their toll.

So, these of us within the healthcare system are hitting our breaking level once more. And when hospitals are full, we’re compelled into making triage decisions.

Ethical dilemmas and painful conversations

In early 2020, we had been in search of the sufferers who would die with or with out a ventilator in an effort to protect the ventilator; right this moment, our planning crew is in search of individuals who may survive exterior of the ICU. And since these sufferers will want a mattress on the principle flooring, we’re additionally compelled to search out folks in hospital-floor beds who may very well be despatched house early, though which may not be as protected a determination as we’d like.

As an illustration, take a affected person who has diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA—extraordinarily excessive blood sugar with fluid and electrolyte disturbances. DKA is harmful and sometimes requires admission to an ICU for a steady infusion of insulin. However sufferers with DKA solely not often find yourself requiring mechanical air flow. So, below disaster triage circumstances, we would transfer them to hospital-floor beds to unlock some ICU beds for very sick COVID-19 sufferers.

However the place are we going to get common hospital rooms for these sufferers with DKA, since these are full too? Right here’s what we would do: Folks with severe infections resulting from IV drug use are usually stored within the hospital whereas they obtain lengthy programs of IV antibiotics. It is because in the event that they had been to make use of an IV catheter to inject medication at house, it may very well be very harmful, even lethal. However below triage situations, we would allow them to go house in the event that they promise to not use their IV line to inject medication.


Clearly, that’s not fully protected. It’s clearly not the same old commonplace of care—however it’s a disaster commonplace of care.

Worse than all of that is anticipating the conversations with sufferers and their households. These are what I dread probably the most, and in the previous few weeks of 2021, we’ve needed to begin practising them once more. How ought to we break the information to sufferers that the care they’re getting isn’t what we’d like as a result of we’re overwhelmed? Right here’s what we would must say:

“There are simply too many sick folks coming to our hospital suddenly, and we don’t have sufficient of what’s wanted to care for all of the sufferers the way in which we want to . . . .”

“At this level, it’s affordable to do a trial of remedy on the ventilator for 48 hours to see how your dad’s lungs reply, however then we’ll must reevaluate. . .”

“I’m sorry, your dad is sicker than others within the hospital, and the therapies haven’t been working in the way in which we had hoped.”

Again when vaccines got here on the horizon a 12 months in the past, we hoped we’d by no means must have these conversations. It’s arduous to simply accept that they’re wanted once more now.