But opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said the government needed to explain how it would find the staff to operate the resource-intensive beds and questioned the large amount of spending.
“We’re being vaccinated and were going into lockdown at 10 or 11 cases to eliminate the virus, so are we ever going to be using the 1600 [beds]?” Ms Crozier asked. No more than 50 Victorians required intensive care at any one time during the state’s second wave of infections last year.
A Medical Journal of Australia paper from March 2020 found there were about 2400 ICU beds in Australia and identified an ability to surge up to about 7000.
Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society president Dr Anthony Holley said evidence from Victoria’s second wave of infections last year showed about 7 per cent of infected people ended up in hospital and about 1 per cent required critical care.
The science is not settled on whether the more transmissible Delta variant – the one associated with the current Australian outbreaks – leads to higher rates of serious illness.
Of the 1137 cases in NSW’s outbreak, 75 cases are in hospital including 18 in intensive care. In Victoria, none of the more than 40 cases are in hospital.
Early in the pandemic, NSW and Queensland both announced a doubling of ICU beds. NSW Health did not respond to questions about whether it had followed through with the plan. Queensland Health said it could now surge its capacity from 300 to 640 beds.
Dr Holley said Australian governments, led by the Commonwealth which procured thousands of ventilators, had dramatically enhanced the nation’s health systems to deal with any surge in cases.
He did not believe there was a prospect of Australian hospitals becoming overwhelmed, and said a new national critical care capacity tracking system, which his organisation helped develop, was “one of our best weapons against COVID”.
“Australian intensive care is in a far better position than it was in March 2020 [but] recognition of how fast this thing goes and how sick people get, including younger people, is really important,” he said.
Roderick Macrae, president of the Australian Medical Association’s Victorian branch, said it was reassuring the state had invested in critical care capacity to deal with any potential COVID surge.
“Happily we didn’t need it as we watched what was going on around the world last year,” he said. “But we still need to take every precaution to reduce transmission of the highly infectious Delta-plus variant.”
Dr Macrae, who said it could be difficult to find enough staff to operate the new beds, said some of the additional capacity would probably be used to meet the record level of demand for health services.
Some hospitals are running above 100 per cent capacity, partly because people with chronic illnesses have developed more serious ailments due to deferring care during last year’s lockdowns. Doctors say patients are spending longer periods in intensive care rehabilitation as they take longer to recover from postponed surgeries.
The Andrews government responded to the crunch on services by pledging $750 million toward ambulance and hospital services, but Dr Macrae said the spending was not targeted as well as it could be.
He said some of the programs being piloted as part of the package were inappropriate, including one that allows nurses to treat patients outside an emergency department if it is too busy, allowing the paramedics to depart to their next job.
“The health system is at breaking point,” he said.
“We need to figure out how to get people out of EDs, not how to get people out of ambulances,” he said, emphasising that some people were spending months clogging beds due to the lack of aged care and NDIS placements.
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