Managing high levels of acute COVID-19 bed occupancy can affect the quality of care provided to both affected patients and those requiring other hospital services. Mass vaccination has offered a route to reduce societal restrictions while protecting hospitals from being overwhelmed. Yet, early in the mass vaccination effort, the possible impact on future bed pressures remained subject to considerable uncertainty. The aim of this study was to model the effect of vaccination on projections of acute and intensive care bed demand within a one million resident healthcare system located in South West England.
An age-structured epidemiological model of the Susceptible-Exposed-Infectious-Recovered (SEIR) type was fitted to local data up to the time of the study, in early March 2021. Model parameters and vaccination scenarios were calibrated through a system-wide multi-disciplinary working group, comprising public health intelligence specialists, healthcare planners, epidemiologists, and academics. Scenarios assumed incremental relaxations to societal restrictions according to the envisaged UK Government timeline, with all restrictions to be removed by 21 June 2021.
Achieving 95% vaccine uptake in adults by 31 July 2021 would not avert a third wave in autumn 2021 but would produce a median peak bed requirement approximately 6% (IQR: 1% to 24%) of that experienced during the second wave (January 2021). A two-month delay in vaccine rollout would lead to significantly higher peak bed occupancy, at 66% (11% to 146%) of that of the second wave. If only 75% uptake was achieved (the amount typically associated with vaccination campaigns) then the second wave peak for acute and intensive care beds would be exceeded by 4% and 19% respectively, an amount which would seriously pressure hospital capacity.
Modelling influenced decision making among senior managers in setting COVID-19 bed capacity levels, as well as highlighting the importance of public health in promoting high vaccine uptake among the population. Forecast accuracy has since been supported by actual data collected following the analysis, with observed peak bed occupancy falling comfortably within the inter-quartile range of modelled projections.