‘PlannIng for the worst’: Asymptomatic Queensland health workers with COVID-19 may need to work due to staffing crisis


Asymptomatic Queensland health workers with COVID-19 may be called on to care for patients with the virus in hospitals under an extreme all-hands-on-deck strategy being considered by health authorities, as the Omicron variant continues to spread like wildfire through the community.

Key points:

  • There will be cuts to elective surgery to help alleviate staffing shortages during the Omicron health crisis
  • An ear, nose and throat ward at the Princess Alexandra Hospital is being transformed into an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients
  • Vulnerable Queenslanders, including pregnant women, elderley and immunocompromised people, should minimise leaving their homes for the next six weeks

Queensland's Chief Health Officer John Gerrard confirmed yesterday the idea was under discussion as part of contingency plans to bolster the health workforce as increasing numbers of patients with COVID-19 require hospital admission and in some cases, intensive care.

He said 313 patients were being treated in Queensland Health hospitals yesterday for COVID-19, but that was expected to swell to thousands of cases in the coming weeks.

Dr Gerrard said 1,156 Queensland Health staff were currently infected with SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — and 1,835 were in quarantine.

Those numbers are also expected to climb.

He said specific rules governing essential workers would be released soon but foreshadowed a shortening of the required seven-day isolation period for close contacts as the Omicron wave reached its peak, expected by early February.

LIVE UPDATES: Read our blog for the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemicCuts to elective surgery

Health Minister Yvette D'Ath warned Queenslanders to prepare for cuts to elective surgery across the state.

She said some hospitals had already taken measures to reduce non-urgent operations to help alleviate staffing shortages during the Omicron health crisis.

Some hospitals have already taken measures to reduce non-urgent operations to help alleviate staffing shortages, Ms D'Ath says.(AAP: Jono Searle)

"We are currently looking at whether we go to that next level of suspending elective surgery across our hospital system as we go towards that surge and the peak of that surge over the coming weeks," Ms D'Ath said.

Queenslanders need to prepare for cuts to elective surgery across the state, Ms D'Ath says.(ABC News)Younger health staff getting the virus 

Queensland Children's Hospital infectious disease physician Julia Clark said the biggest issue facing the hospital in terms of its COVID response was the number of health workers in their 20s and 30s who were contracting the virus.

Of Queensland's 57,677 confirmed cases of the virus, more than 58 per cent are aged in the 20s and 30s.

Dr Clark said young adults made up a "significant part" of the health workforce.

"The current issue within all hospitals and healthcare providers is more about the staffing than the patients, particularly the children," Dr Clark said.

"That's definitely impacting on how we are functioning."

Nine children with the virus are receiving in-hospital care at the Queensland Children's Hospital at South Brisbane.(ABC News: Marc Smith)

About 600 child patients with COVID-19 are being monitored in the Queensland Children's Hospital (QCH) "virtual ward" through telehealth and another nine children with the virus are receiving in-hospital care.

However, Dr Clark said all but one of the COVID-19 patients being cared for in the QCH were there for other reasons.

"They come in with other things and they happen to have COVID," she said.

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"All of the children in hospital, bar one, have got mild, if not asymptomatic, COVID.

"We're not really concerned that we're going to be looking after lots of children with severe COVID.

"What we are having a problem with are all the staff that are needing to be off because they also have COVID."

As the Omicron wave intensified, Dr Clark said hospitals in Queensland and nationally were moving towards telehealth appointments for outpatients, when possible, to decrease the amount of face-to-face contact.

Dr Clark said key areas, such as the emergency department, were being given priority staffing.

'Planning for the worse'

Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union secretary Beth Mohle said maximising the health workforce was the critical issue as the pandemic moved into a third year.

"We're planning for the worst," Ms Mohle said.

"Right now, what we're focusing on is getting us through this rampant community transmission of Omicron.

"In the past, we had five or six designated COVID hospitals.  Now every hospital in Queensland is going to be a COVID hospital — it's everywhere."

Queensland Nurses and Midwives Union secretary Beth Mohle says the health workforce is planning for the worst.(AAP: Dan Peled)

Ms Mohle suggested asymptomatic nurses with COVID-19 could work from home monitoring patients on "virtual wards".

"Necessity is going to be the mother of invention here — we're going to have to do things differently," she said.

"We won't be able to do what we normally do because we won't have the human resources to do that — staff are going to be sick and furloughed.

"These are extraordinary times — it's one day at a time — but we need to be working together to have a clear plan and direction that's based on the evidence and communicating that effectively."

Asymptomatic nurses with COVID-19 could work from home monitoring patients on "virtual wards", Ms Mohle says.(ABC TV News)

Australian Medical Association Queensland (AMAQ) president Chris Perry said preparations were underway to transform an ear, nose and throat (ENT) ward at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane to an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients "if things get bad".

"ENT is a great place to put people with compromised airways because there's wall oxygen and suction," Dr Perry said.

"They've thought this thing through for the last 18 months — they're well prepared."

An ear, nose and throat (ENT) ward at the Princess Alexandra Hospital is being transformed to an intensive care unit for COVID-19 patients.(ABC News: Stefan Lowe)

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the Queensland Disaster Management Group would be stood up next week, warning the Omicron wave would "test the resilience of this state".

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She urged vulnerable Queenslanders, including the elderly, pregnant women and the immunocompromised, to minimise leaving their homes for the next six weeks to protect themselves from the virus.

Ms Palaszczuk's warning comes as the latest federal government data shows more than 100 of Queensland's 498 residential aged care facilities are managing COVID-19 outbreaks, with 121 cases in residents.

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Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news



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