“For example, if you were an emergency department physician at Royal Melbourne and the Northern Hospital got really, really short, then you could go and basically work straight away at the Northern Hospital after your credentials have been confirmed by the hospital.”
Since the pandemic began, 342 Victorian healthcare workers have been infected with COVID-19, the Department of Health and Human Services confirmed on Tuesday.
Hundreds of doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals from major Melbourne hospitals remain sidelined in isolation at home after COVID-19 clusters spread through three emergency departments, a coronavirus ward, an oncology unit and a rehabilitation hospital infecting staff and patients in recent days.
Visitors have been banned from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, except in rare circumstances, after the number of infected staff hit 12 on Tuesday with 64 healthcare workers furloughed.
The outbreak, which began with two nurses who tested positive a week ago, had grown to a level that made its operations “challenging”, the hospital’s interim chief operating officer, Chris MacIsaac, admitted on Tuesday.
The Alfred has also restricted access to its COVID-19 ward after eight healthcare workers tested positive, sending hundreds of staff into isolation in the hospital’s second outbreak since the pandemic began.
Two staff members at Warringal Private Hospital in Heidelberg, including one who works in oncology, have also tested positive to COVID-19, with patients identified as close contacts.
The Brunswick Private Hospital cluster has grown to 12 people, including at least four patients.
Of the medical staff who have signed up to work on the COVID-19 frontline, 21 per cent are allied health professionals including physiotherapists, 9 per cent are doctors, 28 per cent are nurses, 3 per cent are paramedics and 10 per cent are patient care assistants.
A further 29 per cent are medical, pharmacy and dental university students braced to support hospitals and help with testing and contract tracing as the state recorded another 270 infections and two more deaths in the past day.
Professor Wilson said the priority was using highly skilled doctors and nurses already working part-time or employed in quieter private hospitals who could easily shift into the public healthcare system.
Surgeons and theatre nurses, whose workloads are set to dwindle as elective surgeries are wound back, may also be called upon.
Retired doctors and nurses, who make up a small proportion of volunteers, will only be used in a worst-case scenario due to their heightened risk of severe disease if they contract the virus, Professor Wilson said.
“The priority is targeting the under-utilised healthcare workers,” he said. “Students and retired doctors are down the bottom of the list. We’d only use them if we got really desperate.”
Australian Medical Association Victorian president Julian Rait, who is becoming increasingly worried about how the state’s healthcare system would cope with a surge in clusters in hospitals, lauded the move.
“We hope this will alleviate much of the anxiety among many frontline workers who are feeling concerned about potential workforce shortages and reassure the public there are measures there to support healthcare workers,” Associate Professor Rait said.
Professor Wilson, who is leading a team investigating how healthcare workers have been infected with COVID-19, said preliminary data suggested the vast majority were still being infected outside of their workplace.
Infected medical staff are then going to work and unknowingly infecting their colleagues through shared environments.
There has been no evidence so far that misuse of personal protective equipment, such as face masks or gowns, had led to infections.
“A smaller number, we think, got the infection at work so we are digging deeper to try to understand why it happened and understand some learnings for the whole sector to determine if there is some kind of pattern,” the cardiologist said.
“It is critical for our workers to know if they are doing the wrong thing, or if we as a system are doing the wrong thing we need to know about it.”
Professor Wilson conceded moving healthcare workers between hospitals posed a risk of transferring the virus from one hospital to another.
“We don’t think the risk of that is very high at the moment,” he said. “We are definitely aware of it and monitoring it closely. We’ve got to balance that risk with the effects on the entire healthcare system. We know that a large number of nurses and doctors already do move around the system every day.”
Meanwhile, Premier Daniel Andrews said a team of 200 Ambulance Victoria staff was being assembled to help the state’s public health team in the battle against COVID-19.
About 1000 Australian Defence Force personnel would also be arriving over the next few weeks and staying “for the foreseeable future”, Mr Andrews said.
Their focus will include planning tasks in the State Control Centre, logistics and providing assistance in outbreaks at public housing estates.
Professor Wilson said the state’s healthcare system was well equipped to deal with the rising number of infections in the coming weeks, adding he did not anticipate all 14,000 workers would be called upon.
“I have only admiration for all our frontline workers, especially people who are working in emergency departments and ICU wards where there are very sick people with coronavirus,” Professor Wilson said.
“It’s scary for them at times, but people have already stepped up. Our absolute priority is the safety of our healthcare workers. Everything we are doing is to keep them safe.”
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Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.