Unions say NSW hospitals are continuing to be stretched by rising COVID-19 infections even if their primary presentation is not the virus, as the Prime Minister calls for an overhaul of how such data is reported.
The number of people with COVID-19 in hospital hit 1204 on Monday, including 95 in ICU. The hospitalisation figure is close to the 1266 in hospital during the peak of the Delta wave in September, although at that time 244 people required intensive care.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would be looking to review how hospitalisation data was reported, after both NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and his Victorian counterpart said some people being counted in their numbers had been admitted for other treatment and then tested positive.
“We need to get a standard definition on that because these are the key things we have to track now,” Mr Morrison told Nine’s Today show on Monday, referencing a shift from focusing on case numbers to hospitalisations and intensive care admissions.
NSW Health is conducting a review of its admissions data.
But Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes said it was inaccurate to think the data discrepancy meant hospital workers were not being stretched by increasing cases, noting patients who test positive to the virus while admitted for another health issue must then be dealt with using additional protocols and kept isolated
“You’ve got a level of logistical movement to ensure that you’re not going to cross-infect people,” Mr Hayes said.
Brett Holmes, general secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, agreed. He said in situations such as labour wards or mental health units, infection control was extremely difficult and dealing with COVID-positive patients presenting in all parts of a hospital as community cases climb was presenting challenges.
“It means you can’t quickly move between patients, you need to manage where patients are, how they are allocated in a ward – you doubly complicate the care that you are delivering,” he said, noting the big difference between COVID-19 management for nurses now and during Sydney’s lockdown was the variety of ways it could present itself.
Significant COVID-19 outbreaks occurred during Sydney’s Delta wave when cases were detected in mental health units and geriatric wards, among other locations inside hospitals.
Mr Holmes said he understood Mr Hazzard was meaning to reassure the community by indicating that fewer people were sick with COVID-19 than the hospitalisation figure suggested, but said stretched hospital staff found the figure “just as scary”.
In an appearance on Seven’s Sunrise on Monday, Mr Morrison said the “majority” of cases in hospital with COVID-19 in Australia had the earlier Delta variant.
NSW Health did not respond to questions about whether this was the case in its hospitals. Health authorities have considered the Omicron variant of COVID-19 to be the driver of rising infections in NSW for the past four weeks.
There were 20,794 new cases of COVID-19 in NSW on Monday and four deaths, including a resident of the Bolton Clarke Cabrini aged care facility in Westmead who acquired her infection there.
The deaths were aged in their 70s, 80s and 90s. Three had received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and one had received a third dose.
Dr Chant urged people only to attend emergency departments if it was medically necessary, to ease pressure on hospitals.
“While we are very well-placed in the global context to manage this case burden, it is important that we all play our part in not placing unnecessary burden on the health system,” she said.
“For instance, if you’re going to the emergency department to try to get PCR test for COVID and you’re not unwell, that potentially comprises the care for those that need it.”
As private pathology labs struggled to deal with significant demand for PCR testing on another public holiday weekend, Australian Clinical Labs shut its 28 drive-through and walk-in clinics in NSW “until further notice”.
A spokesperson for the company said its staff were “working round the clock” to process the swabs it had already taken.
“This is an unprecedented situation and we and the rest of the sector are doing everything we can to meet demand and the needs of the community,” they said.
Liesel Wett, CEO of Australian Pathology the peak body for private pathology, said the system remained under “immense pressure” although laboratories and testing clinics were starting to see the difference made by the removal of PCR testing requirements for interstate and international travel.
“We’d ask that everyone be patient and work with us and state and territory health departments to meet the needs of Australians that are symptomatic or a close contact that require a PCR test,” she said.