Victoria’s hospitals are likely to reach capacity within weeks, an emergency doctor in Melbourne has warned.
- Too many healthy aged care residents are being transferred to hospital, Dr Sarah Whitelaw says
- She says the biggest problem facing Victoria’s health system is the number of healthcare workers contracting coronavirus
- Dr Sanjaya Senanayake says while hospitals are under stress they still had capacity to cope
Dr Sarah Whitelaw said hospitals were overburdened with the high number of coronavirus cases as well as healthy aged care residents who were being transferred to hospital.
The biggest problem, she said, was the number of hospital staff contracting the virus.
“We thought at the beginning of the pandemic that our problem was going to be intensive care beds and the number of ventilators that we had … we’ve all been blindsided by the fact that our problem is the workforce,” Dr Whitelaw told 7.30.
“I think the number of healthcare worker infections is a real concern.”
More than 1,000 healthcare workers in Victoria have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
“That is our biggest problem going forward in Victoria over the next couple of weeks and needs an urgent response,” she said.
Dr Whitelaw, an emergency physician in Melbourne who sits on the board of the Australian Medical Association in Victoria, said the state’s health system was under “huge strain”.
“If the number of cases don’t go down … and we continue to move all of our aged care residents directly into the hospital system, within a couple of weeks we’ll run out of capacity in the Victorian hospital system,” Dr Whitelaw said.
She said while sick aged care residents belonged in hospital, healthy residents being put there because nursing homes were overwhelmed did not.
“We need to move aged care residents as soon as it’s apparent an aged care facility is not able to care for them safely. But to continue to move them into the hospital system is not the answer,” she said.
On Wednesday, the Victorian Government announced that elective surgery in regional Victoria would be put on hold until further notice, except for category-one and urgent category-two patients.
“This is a regrettable decision but it is a very important one in order to preserve sufficient capacity in our entire health system,” Premier Daniel Andrews said.
Dr Whitelaw said stopping elective surgery was necessary “but we’re conscious we can’t be doing that for very long”.
“We need to keep that change to our normal systems of care as short as possible,” she said.
‘A difficult time’
Infectious disease expert Dr Sanjaya Senanayake said while the stage 3 lockdown had been effective, the move to stage 4 was a clear acknowledgement by Victorian authorities that the system was not coping.
“If it was in control and they were happy with how things were going, they wouldn’t have gone to stage 4 restrictions and all the various hardships it can bring. So I believe it was necessary,” Dr Senanayake said.
“If we say on average, one case generates about 10 contacts, on a day like today we’re looking at about 7,000 contacts.”
He said while the health system was “definitely stressed”, it still had capacity to “bring this around”.
“It certainly is a difficult time but it’s not at a point where the damage is irreversible.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services said: “Our hospitals have been preparing for coronavirus since January, creating extra capacity and ensuring we have enough beds, equipment and PPE to manage any surge in patients.”
“Thankfully, we have not needed this extra capacity yet and if we stay home and protect the health system, we won’t need all of this extra capacity and we’ll save lives.
“All health services are able to access Victoria’s surge workforce if required, which will become more and more important if case numbers continue to increase and more staff are furloughed.”
Dr Whitelaw’s husband is also a doctor treating COVID-19 patients, and she said they were both very aware of the risks. Last week they finalised their wills.
“We really can’t risk both of us becoming very sick from coronavirus or potentially dying. We have two small children.”