Internal Health Department projections show that the state is on the brink of a tenfold increase in COVID-19 infections over the next six weeks as restrictions ease, with a predicted 18,000 active coronavirus cases and 800 people in hospital by mid-October.
Grant McArthur, who co-chairs the Victorian COVID-19 Cancer Taskforce, said skin cancer surgeries were already being delayed in the state’s hospitals, where more than 150 people were being treated for coronavirus. None of those in hospital with the virus have been fully vaccinated.
Of most concern for Professor McArthur was an anticipated cancer spike in the next six to 12 months, fuelled by a surge in later-stage cancers being diagnosed after thousands of Victorians delayed life-saving screening appointments for the disease since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We’re very concerned about these: the late diagnoses, the risk of preventable deaths and the pressure this will place on the healthcare system in the months to come,” he said.
More than 2500 cancer diagnoses were missed in Victoria between April and October last year, with a steep fall in the detection of prostate, skin and breast cancers, along with head and neck tumours.
The Age revealed last year Victorians were having heart attacks at home or waiting more than 12 hours before seeking potentially life-saving hospital treatment amid fears of over-burdening the health system or catching the virus in hospital.
Professor Stub was part of a team of Australian researchers who found cardiac survival rates halved in Victoria during the first lockdown as strict safety protocols delayed paramedics.
While there had been a slight improvement, survival rates had not returned to the baseline of 12 per cent.
The state’s elective surgery waiting list has also blown out to more than 65,000 people, after roughly 30,000 operations were delayed or cancelled last year.
Stephen Mason, chief executive of the Australian Patients Association, said some Victorians had now been waiting “three or four years” for elective surgeries, often in severe pain.
“Many people can’t work because they are in so much pain and what’s compounding all this is nobody can give them an answer,” he said.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Karen Price said she had already heard anecdotal reports of stage-four cancer patients being discharged from hospital early in NSW because their beds were needed for coronavirus patients.
Patients are also arriving sicker after putting off care or having their surgeries delayed due to the pandemic, resulting in more people flooding emergency departments than ever before.
She urged Victorians not to delay medical treatment and to get vaccinated as soon as they could to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed in the coming months.
In the United States, an Alabama man died of cardiac arrest earlier this month after he was turned away from more than 40 hospitals that had their ICUs fully occupied with COVID-19 patients.
Coronavirus patients often need to spend up to three weeks in intensive care. Professor Stub said this seriously diminished the amount of heart and cancer procedures that could be done with “ICU beds that could otherwise be used to recover someone from open-heart surgery taken up by coronavirus patients”.
“This is already having a significant impact on us now, and we’re at relatively few numbers in hospitals with COVID,” he said. “I worry about what is to come if we see huge numbers of cases in the community.”
The Melbourne cardiologist issued an urgent plea for people to be vaccinated.
“I just want to issue a desperate plea to all Victorians and Australians, if you aren’t vaccinated for all your loved ones and your community, please get vaccinated,” Professor Stub said.
“Our health system is sophisticated enough that it will cope with whatever COVID numbers we have when we open up, but the trouble is that it will be at the cost of other health conditions.
“We don’t want to divert health resources away from heart disease, cancer patients or from mental health. But that will invariably happen, it’s already happening now.”