Health system ‘can cope’ with weaker Covid

  • Published November 21, 2022

The Australian, 16 November 2022

Doctors, unions and epidemiologists remain optimistic that the latest Covid wave will be easier to manage than previous spikes despite ongoing staffing shortages crippling the healthcare system.

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler on Tuesday all but ruled out new restrictions as Australia nears the peak of its fourth Omicron wave, which is expected to be “short and sharp” and over within weeks.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Karen Price said she was “cautious and concerned” but not “panicked”, adding that the healthcare system’s ability to cope relied on people heeding health advice including mask wearing and vaccination.

Dr Price called for the government to extend its Covid-19 funding support for hospitals and aged care facilities beyond December, saying doctors and hospitals needed ongoing security.

“Hopefully what we’ve seen in Singapore and how they’ve managed is what we will see and, despite all the staff resignations and exhaustions, it won’t be as bad. We also hope the peaks won’t be as bad or prolonged,” she said.

“We rely on everyone doing everything they can to avoid getting sick, including to mask up and get vaccinated.”

Australian Medical Association vice-president Danielle McMullen said case numbers were not rising as quickly as they did during the winter wave. She remained cautious, given mandated isolation requirements had been completely removed.

“If Covid has shown us one thing is that it’s hard to predict, and it pays to be prepared particularly before the holiday season,” Dr McMullen said.

NSW Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes said the state public and private health services were not planning any “drastic action” in response to rising case numbers but warned the workforce was already stretched.

Mr Hayes backed national cabinet’s less restrictive policy settings, with intensive care units not expected to come to a point where they cannot cope.

“The sector is prepared for the current wave and it is good news that it will be less acute and less severe than previous waves, but staffing shortages are a chronic issue,” he said.

“If we don’t learn the lessons from the pandemic, which is an underinvestment into the workforce over many many years which has been highlighted and exemplified through Covid, then the gaps clearly show.”

Deakin University’s chair in epidemiology, Catherine Bennett, said each Covid Omicron wave was having less of an impact on hospitals because the severity of the disease was decreasing. The build-up of immunity after each wave and increasing use of antivirals meant subsequent waves were “not as devastating” on the hospital system.

“Our main concern is around staff furloughing. Hospital staff are required to stay home if they test positive and if we are seeing high numbers in the community then that will transcend to both hospitals and primary care.”

“If you look within states like Victoria at the BA. 5 wave (during winter), if you measure it on hospitalisations, it’s about 20 per cent lower than the BA. 1 wave (in summer). Numbers in ICU were a third of what they were in the January peak. We’re seeing that drop away,” she said.

Professor Bennett pointed to the latest XBB wave in the restriction-free UK, which peaked with fewer people testing positive and fewer deaths and hospitalisations than in previous waves.