‘It’s dire’: WA hospitals face deepening crisis as winter wave looms

‘It’s dire’: WA hospitals face deepening crisis as winter wave looms

July 18, 2022

West Australian hospitals are about to face their biggest test yet, with increasing numbers of people going to hospital for flu-like illnesses, including COVID-19, at a time of year when presentations usually begin to drop.

So far this year, admissions to WA hospitals for flu-like illnesses have been on par with previous years, despite one million people having been infected with COVID-19 since the pandemic began. However, a growing number of flu cases combined with coronavirus is expected to bring about a severe winter wave.

Australian Medical Association WA president Dr Mark Duncan-Smith said the hospital system was already not coping, and the crisis would deepen as cases surged and the predicted August COVID peak approached.

A senior clinician agreed, saying flu cases would continue to rise for a few weeks, with respiratory syncytial virus and parainfluenza outbreaks still a possibility too.

“On top of that we have COVID continuing to increase, and it’s causing quite severe illness,” said the clinician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their job.

“A lot of people are very sick with it at the moment. Not to ICU level, but needing substantial care. Huge numbers of single rooms are required.”

There are predictions of months of “carnage” at WA hospitals, and even as flu numbers started to decline after the peak was reached, there would still be significant numbers of people requiring hospital care.

“The system is broken and completely compromised already, and even if it’s three to four weeks on a plateau, that would be a disaster because people are broken and burned out,” the clinician said.

Duncan-Smith said five healthcare workers from one hospital emergency department quit on one day last week, as morale in emergency departments hit rock bottom. Emergency department consultants had told the doctor’s union the situation was “dire”.

Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital had called emergency “code yellows” for 14 consecutive days, indicating the hospital was full and patients arriving in emergency were unable to be given beds, he said.

Those admitted to emergency departments were waiting up to two days to be allocated a bed in a hospital ward.

Duncan-Smith said without public health measures being introduced to reduce transmission, the crisis would deepen with more ambulance ramping and more delays in treatment, and urged the McGowan government to return to its previous cautious approach.

Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson appealed to people suffering the flu not to go to hospital emergency departments if they could safely be treated by a GP, or to go to a respiratory clinic.

About 150 people were presenting to hospitals every day with non-COVID winter respiratory illnesses, very few of whom were admitted.

“Don’t attend to the emergency department unless you actually need to be there,” Sanderson said.

“Clinicians are reporting high numbers of people presenting with flu and respiratory illness who are not sick enough to be admitted. If you can go to your GP or respiratory clinic, please do so. This will help to ease the burden on hospitals which are still experiencing pressures from furloughed staff.”

She said about 1500 health workers were unavailable due to COVID-19 furloughing.

The clinician said health workers were tired of the government’s lip service.

Sanderson encouraged eligible people to get flu and COVID vaccines and to carry a mask and wear it indoors if desired.

“Our very high vaccination rates are what has carried us through previous outbreaks and stand us in good stead to meet the challenges of the coming weeks,” she said.

“At the beginning of the last wave, it was impossible to predict how well vaccination rates would protect the community because they were virtually unprecedented. And what occurred was much better than anticipated. Hospitalisation rates and ICU rates were far lower than predicted.”

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