Newcastle omicron COVID outbreak places growing pressure on frontline health workers

Newcastle Herald, 28 December 2021

GROWING pressures on the Hunter's healthcare system has frontline staff questioning how long they can hold on before they reach breaking point, as COVID hospitalisation rates continue to climb.

Attempts to manage the growing risk of infection, with many staff already in isolation, coupled with the impact of cutbacks to the region's GP Access services is taking its toll. General practice is also feeling the strain as it pivots to manage and oversee the care of patients managing with COVID at home.
John Hunter Hospital-based senior staff specialist and and researcher, professor Nick Talley, said he is 'really worried' about the hospital system. "The furloughing, the fact that we're going to infect other people in hospital ... it becomes potentially dangerous to go to hospital, which means it's terrible for society because people with other problems who need to be in hospital are either going to be put at risk or not go to hospital," he said. "Now that's a disaster."

Daily hospital admissions due to COVID have reached 27 in Hunter New England, close to the peak of 30 reached on October 8 during the Delta outbreak. To get through the door, patients brought in to emergency departments by ambulance must undergo rapid antigen tests, and those with respiratory symptoms cannot go to Belmont Hospital which does not have the facilities to cater for patients with COVID.

A nurse based at the John Hunter Hospital's emergency department said there were 'extensive' waiting times on Christmas and Boxing Day of four-to six hours.

"There were quite long wait times on Christmas evening as well, with not having the opportunity to be able to send people out and away (to GP Access clinics) obviously that brought more people in," she said.

"I know that the ambulances were ramped on Boxing Day - they had to stay with their patients for periods of time all day, from the start of the day ... so they were obviously taking up priority beds because they were unwell."

The Medical Director of GP Access After Hours, Dr Lee Fong, said the closure of the Calvary Mater's GP Access clinic was a concern.

"It is a particular concern at a time when COVID infections have been rising across the state, and it remains unclear what the impact will be on our healthcare system," he said. "If there is a significant stress on our healthcare worker staffing and ICU beds in particular, any remaining capacity we can utilise across our healthcare network, including GP Access After Hours, will be extremely important."

The combination and cumulative effect of those issues is also putting added pressure on paramedics, along the closure of several Hunter ambulance stations, including Kurri Kurri and Tanilba Bay, following staff COVID cases over the past week. All paramedics are now required to undergo rapid antigen testing at the start of each shift.

"The workload has been phenomenal over the Christmas period, that's true for right across the state," one ambulance officer told the Newcastle Herald.

"We were down 3.5 cars on Christmas Eve. There has been an increase in the loss of staff due to iso requirements and that will no doubt continue."

Another paramedic said COVID-related PPE requirements meant it was taking longer to attend to patients than ever. "Ultimately we would love the ambulance service to give us more staff. We are at breaking point and just hanging on. I would say we are coping, but only just at the moment. The whole system is under a great deal of strain and I don't see things improving."

Health Services Union general secretary Gerard Hayes said cutbacks in GP services, following the closure of GP Access at Newcastle's Calvary Mater hospital on Christmas Eve, and reduced hours elsewhere, would also inevitably lead to enhanced numbers of ED presentations and create more front end issues.

"At the moment we are seeing in NSW hospitals 2000 staff furloughed a day, that in itself becomes a workforce problem and then the enhanced presentation of more normal illnesses and injuries on top of the COVID presentations, it's going to become pretty tough for the hospitals," he said.