ICUs are being overwhelmed with younger — and sicker — patients

“Unlike last year, we’re getting a very young population, which is extremely concerning because this time we’re now getting young people without pre-existing conditions,” Zacharski said. “So that’s scarier.”

On a recent weekday afternoon, Zacharski was working in the ICU when a 27-year-old patient’s vital signs crashed, triggering an alarm on a computer monitor in the nurses’ station. Her blood oxygen saturation levels had dropped suddenly from 95 to 64. Normal readings usually range from 95 to 100, and anything below 90 is considered low.

As the patient’s heart rate accelerated, Zacharski and her colleagues rushed to the patient’s room and removed the ventilator from her throat. Then they applied a bag valve mask, pumping the air bag by hand to force oxygen into the patient’s lungs.

The medical team revived the patient, and her blood oxygen levels slowly recovered. It’s possible that the patient’s blood oxygen levels crashed because of a mucus plug, Zacharski said, emphasizing that dangerous complications can arise at any time.