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Queensland hospitals prepare for surge as state's virus tally tops 500

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The Queensland government will take over private hospitals and co-opt any suitable beds in the general community to help the health system cope with a surge of COVID-19 cases in coming weeks.

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The move comes as all returned travellers are set to be quarantined in hotels rather than the more relaxed home-isolation arrangements. That will see hundreds of Brisbane hotel rooms taken up and monitored from Saturday night.

With the number of cases set to pass 500 in Queensland today, and 3,000 nationally, the government is also examining what health building projects can be fast-tracked or reassigned to respond to the crisis. A building site next to the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital is still being considered as a dedicated COVID-19 hospital.Revealed: The unfinished hospital building set to become Fortress Quarantine

Queensland Health has already opened fever clinics across the state, tripled emergency department capacity and doubled intensive care capacity. More beds will be added to the state’s medical accommodation stocks – and may be found in unorthodox places. In some states, military bases are looking to stand up field hospitals, however that may be a last resort in Queensland.

After a national Cabinet meeting today, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Defence personnel would be available to help enforce home quarantine arrangements as well a new requirement that people returning from overseas be kept monitored in hotels for 14 days. In Queensland, travellers will be required to stay in specified Brisbane hotels.

Returning cruise ship passengers have already spread the novel coronavirus throughout Australia, while yesterday alone there were 7,120 airport arrivals.

Complex and sensitive surge planning has seen modelling done on the potential scale of the outbreak in Queensland – at worst, more than 10,000 cases at the same time – and the resources needed to respond to mild, moderate and high scenarios. Already, some Hospital and Health Services, such as the Gold Coast, have reached moderate levels.

With non-urgent elective surgery postponed, the focus is on preparing for the worst of the pandemic. Even at such an extraordinary level as modelled, the bolstered Queensland health system is expected to manage, with private hospitals lending their wards and emergency departments and community facilities converted into recovery stations. Charter flights will be used to transport acute hospitals to the best available hospital. Less problematic cases will be dealt with at home, with patients having outreach from Queensland Health and pharmacists, as well as using new telehealth arrangements under Medicare.

Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles would not comment on the specific arrangements today but confirmed planning for the surge was well-advanced.

“Queenslanders should be assured Queensland hospitals are planning for every possible scenario,” Miles said.

“But we hope we don’t need them, which is why the social distancing rules are so important.”

The Federal Government’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, told the ABC’s AM program the states had surge plans for seasonable influenza outbreaks and revised them to confront COVID-19. He expected the number of intensive care beds nationally to be lifted to around 4000.

“The hospitals are very prepared for this sort of thing,” Kelly said, adding that primary care organisations and the Australian Defence Force had also joined the coordinated response.

But with a continued increase in cases, and some unable to be traced, the threat of uncontrolled community transmission may lead to enforced prevention measures – such as shutting down the worst-hit communities.

“Certain states may soon have to look at shutdown,” Kelly said.

With the states already having such powers – as seen by Queensland this week restricting border access – a national Cabinet meeting today is likely to focus more on the unfolding economic crisis. The Morrison government is expected to announce its third stimulus package within days, amid speculation some businesses may be allowed to hibernate, with taxpayer-funded support, rather than shut down.

Morrison said he did not want businesses to close and never reopen, and every option would be considered to sustain them through the pandemic.

“We want Australia to rise again,” he said.

Governments continue to discuss nationally consistent school arrangements.

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