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Health staff worried as Delta wave to crash on Queensland hospitals

Dr Kim Hansen, the chair of Advancing Women in Emergency at the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, which represents emergency clinicians, said the mood among their members was “sombre” as they waited for Delta to arrive in Queensland.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with young fans Jack and Billie at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital during the last state election campaign in October 2020.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk with young fans Jack and Billie at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital during the last state election campaign in October 2020.

“We are overloaded even without COVID,” Dr Hansen said. “We’re really worried the system won’t stand up if we have a Delta wave like Victoria or NSW.”

“I think we’d suffer the same fate as NSW or Victoria – we’d have incredibly long delays, we’d have staff that are completely overwhelmed and burnt out, patients unable to access the emergency department for many hours, which can lead to dire consequences, because we just don’t have spare capacity even now.”

Dr Hansen said Queensland hospitals, especially large hospitals in southeast Queensland, were struggling with capacity issues even though there was very few COVID cases in the state right now.

Just on Tuesday the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital was placed in Code Yellow, meaning it did not have any beds available and ambulances had to be re-routed to other facilities.

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It’s the second time the RBWH went to Code Yellow status this year that has been made publicly known, with another incident in March.

Dr Hansen said much of the strain being put on Queensland’s hospitals was a flow-on effect from lockdowns and the pandemic more generally in 2020, with people avoiding seeing their GP or getting treatment for more minor conditions until they needed urgent care and presented at an emergency department.

However, Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union secretary Beth Mohle said it was also a result of years of policies designed around making the health system “efficient” but not making it better.

“COVID has revealed the cracks in the system,” Ms Mohle said. “When you put a system under pressure, fault lines begin to appear.

“You can’t have a health system running at 100 per cent capacity all the time, you need redundancy to keep it safe.”

Ms Mohle said many nurses were looking at the situation unfolding in NSW with a lot of worry, and many were on the verge of burnout.

“We’ve been living with this pandemic for more than 18 months,” she said, “and people can only run on adrenaline for so long.”

Dr Deborah Bailey, Queensland head of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, was more upbeat about the preparations being made in the leadup to any outbreak.

“Proportionally if we have to deal with what Sydney has had to deal with I’m actually confident that we can deal with it,” she said.

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“A lot of the strain on current [hospital] capacity is elective and routine work, which of course largely goes away during an outbreak.”

“I’m confident that our hospitals are world-class, and the fact we’ve done so well so far shows the strength of our public health measures compared to some of the other states.”

Dr Bailey said she believed some things would actually run smoother during an active outbreak compared to at the moment, giving PPE use as an example, where individual patients with actual or suspected COVID require special measures to deal with, whereas during an outbreak, all staff on a ward would don PPE as a matter of course.

In a statement, Queensland Health outlined some measures it had put in place to deal with a potential Delta Wave in hospitals.

“Across the state, our public hospitals have 393 staffed and equipped Intensive Care Unit beds, with the capacity to expand to 576 beds,” a spokesperson said.

“Our hospitals also have 1355 ventilators available for the most critical COVID-19 patients.

“There are more than 300 negative pressure rooms or equivalent to treat patients with infectious diseases such as COVID-19. This number has increased about 20 per cent since the start of the pandemic.”

Last year, the Queensland government outlined a “worst-case scenario” plan, which involved using the RNA Showgrounds as a major triage unit for thousands of potential COVID patients in a similar way to how the facilities were converted into a massive field hospital during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919.

It was not immediately clear if that plan was still in place and what the threshold would be for it to be activated.

Dr Hansen said she believed health workers would rise to meet the challenge of any outbreak, and they were in a better position now than in 2020 as many were now fully vaccinated.

“It just depends on how bad the outbreak is here. I really expect Delta to come back, and I just hope it’s something manageable,” she said.

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