Sydney’s hospital system is under “enormous pressure” after a positive Covid case resulted in 80 staff being forced into isolation at St George hospital, the New South Wales health minister, Brad Hazzard, has admitted, while ambulances carrying coronavirus patients waited for hours outside another facility.
The St George hospital staff have been deemed close contacts of a patient in the oncology ward who tested positive.
Four patients and two staff members had tested positive, while 21 patients in the ward remained in isolation after their tests, NSW Health’s Dr Jeremy McAnulty said on Tuesday.
At Westmead hospital, there were again long delays for admission on Monday night, with up to 13 ambulances waiting several hours with patients at the emergency department.
The Australian Paramedics Association NSW president, Christopher Kastelan, said the ambulances were waiting outside for many hours mostly with Covid-positive patients.
Patients were being X-rayed in the ambulances while they waited for admission, he said. At least two crews were due to finish their shifts at 10pm but were not able to hand over their patients until 4am.
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“I guess it flags concern about an already overloaded healthcare system. Paramedics are frustrated and exhausted,” Kastelan said. “They are also worried about prolonged exposure to Covid-positive cases in confined spaces.”
Kastelan said the issue appeared to be insufficient areas to receive Covid-positive patients, who were kept separate from other emergency cases. In other countries, hospitals had erected tents to receive Covid patients.
A ward at Canterbury hospital had also been closed for a deep clean after Covid cases were detected.
“Remembering these places, the staff are really concerned that they’re keeping patients safe so they’re taking all the actions they can to work with patients, follow contact tracing and health advice and making sure that their patients are safe,” McAnulty said.
Nepean hospital was also under strain after a mental health patient tested positive to Covid and there was another separate exposure within the hospital.
A health department spokesperson said there were eight new cases linked to those exposures, taking the cluster to 38.
Liverpool hospital was the facility causing most concern 10 days ago after a staff member infected patients in two wards, including a dementia ward. At least seven elderly patients had died in the resulting cluster.
Hazzard said there was “no question that the hospital system is under enormous pressure across NSW”.
“Which is why we’ve had to take some measures that we’ve talked about in the past, so easing back on some of the less urgent elective surgery.
“I ask the community to be tolerant and understand that your nurses and your doctors and your physiotherapists and everybody else in the health system are working very hard for you.
“But we’re in a pandemic and people will have to be taken offline and we will have to have some inconvenience in that sense, but overall the health system is still extraordinarily good.”
Hazzard said the NSW health system was the biggest in the country and had 140,000 staff.
But Gerard Hayes, the NSW secretary of the Health Services Union, said promises of surge staff “had not really eventuated” and paramedics, nurses and doctors were fatigued.
“We are in a chronic phase now. Staff are really looking forward to having high vaccination rates in the future,” he said.
The state’s chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, said this week that people with serious conditions, such as chest pain, should not put off going to hospital as the system was able to treat them and was still functioning well.
The general secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association, Brett Holmes, said his members were already facing a pretty difficult situation before this wave of Covid and the pressure had increased.
Not only were his members working in hospitals, often in full personal protective equipment, but they were also working at special health accommodation facilities which now hold 700 people and providing in-home care for Covid patients.
“Our members were working at a very high demand level before this wave of Covid,” he said. “Everyone is working their hardest. Then the unexpected happens such as at St George.”
Holmes said while hospitals were facing high demand there was no need to bring in staff from interstate yet. Rather, workers were being moved between hospitals when there was exposure.
Further steps could involve borrowing staff from private hospitals and further limiting elective surgery if needed, he said. There had also been calls for the ADF to provide nursing support while undergraduate nurses were being trained to assist at vaccination hubs.