The death of a former Cumberland Hospital patient on Monday has focused attention on more than 100 cases that have been acquired in public hospitals during Sydney’s current COVID-19 outbreak.
The woman in her 60s died at Westmead Hospital and is linked to a developing cluster at Cumberland, a mental health facility in Sydney’s west.
Eleven patients at Cumberland have now tested positive after a patient was admitted having caught COVID-19 in the community.
Meanwhile, affected wards at Canterbury Hospital have been reopened after 22 patients who caught the virus from three patients across two wards earlier this month were transferred to other hospitals.
Five patients have died after catching COVID-19 at Canterbury, the same number of deaths among cases acquired at Nepean Hospital, which has endured two outbreaks over the past month.
There have been three COVID-19 exposures at St George Hospital in the past three weeks.
The first, through a patient in the oncology ward, resulted in infections in six additional cancer patients and three staff members. Two patients have died.
In the past fortnight, two patients on a surgical ward and, in a separate incident, an unvaccinated nurse who acquired their infection in the community have tested positive, sending 39 staff into isolation.
A St George Hospital staff member, who was not authorised to speak, said staff had raised concerns about patients being admitted to emergency without being swabbed on entry.
“Theatre staff including anaesthetists, registrars, neurosurgeons and nurses are now isolating because of emergency patients that were not swabbed on admission and found to be positive after people were exposed to them,” the staff member said.
A South Eastern Sydney Local Health District spokesperson said its hospitals “follow NSW Health guidelines, and a risk assessment is undertaken on all patients who present to the emergency departments”.
Ongoing exposures in hospitals have resulted in a significant impact on staff, with many forced to undergo mandatory isolation, moving into Special Health Accommodation if they are unable to isolate from their families at home.
Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes said constant furloughing caused by hospital exposures had led to frustration for the union’s members, and the fear of giving COVID-19 to someone in their care was also taking a toll.
It can feel like they are being told they are spreading it, when what they are doing is trying to look after patients under some very tough conditions,” he said.
In an article published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday, Royal Melbourne Hospital’s chief medical officer, Dr Cate Kelly, outlined lessons learnt from Victoria’s second wave, during which 271 healthcare staff acquired COVID-19, many at work.
“The first step is to try and avoid it getting in, in the first place: put in all of the screening that you possibly can and obviously have PPE,” she said.
Dr Kelly said changes in approach when a recent exposure occurred at the hospital included optimising clinical spaces to minimise transmission risk – such as prioritising access to negative pressure rooms for the most infectious patients, selecting wards with higher ceilings to dilute aerosols and using portable air cleaners.
She said the shorter transmission cycle for Delta meant staff could be furloughed for less time with minimal risk.
“If no one in the cohort has become infected by day five, you can have some level of confidence that they’re not going to test positive and so then you have to risk grade that against the risk of not having specialist staff there,” she said.
“Because if they go back in, and they’re wearing an N95 mask, and they’ve been double vaccinated, the risk of transmission is low, even in that worst-case situation.”
A 10th aged care resident died in NSW’s outbreak on Sunday: a man in his 70s who lived at Meredith House Aged Care Facility at Strathfield, in Sydney’s inner west.