Dear Editor,

About a third of patients infected with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) become critically ill and require intensive care unit (ICU) admission [1]. As the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease-19) outbreak spreads [2], ICUs outside of China need to prepare for a potential surge of critically ill patients and counter the high transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 [3]. Liu et al. have described their important preparations [4], and we would like to expand on their good advice by sharing lessons learnt from our early experience.

By 17 February 2020, Singapore recorded the highest number of confirmed cases outside of mainland China with several clusters of local transmission. All healthcare institutions adopted a common strategy of containment, with isolation of all suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 in negative-pressure rooms. We were fortunate that most ICU beds were single rooms—this infrastructure was put in place following the outbreak of SARS in 2003.

We realized preparing ICUs for patients with COVID-19 had numerous other requirements. First, infection control not only involved strict adherence to personal protective equipment for the individual, but also involved changes in group dynamics. We organized our ICU to mitigate the effects of any infected staff by avoiding potential spread between teams (see Table 1). Related to infection control, the medical ICU was given the task to cohort suspect or confirmed cases, including with peri- and post-partum care of pregnant women. Second, evolving information necessitated rapid and regular communications with large, disparate groups of clinicians.

Table 1 Critical care issues and solutions for COVID-19

Third, we had to train non-ICU acute medical staff dealing with critically ill patients prior to ICU admission, especially for resuscitation. Fourth, we had to re-examine specific ICU services. Given that extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for severe viral pneumonia is well-established [5], we prepared to cohort all COVID-19 patients in the medical ICU and have a satellite team from the cardiothoracic ICU manage the ECMO circuit. Lastly, we realized staff morale took an early hit due to multiple factors, including increased workload due to implementation of strict infection control measures, uncertainty over the effectiveness of personal protective equipment, anxiety over the lethality of any infection, concern for the well-being of their family members and stigmatization by members of the public.

To address the various issues of infection control, information flow, resuscitation training, advanced ICU services and psychological well-being of staff, we formulated several principles and solutions, which we hope can help other ICUs prepare for COVID-19 (see Table 1).