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By the numbers: Enough beds, but no mention of risk to frontline staff

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Modelling used to forecast the ability of the hospital system to cope with COVID-19 did not take into account the risk of health workers falling ill or burning out before the worst has passed.

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While there might be enough intensive care beds to accommodate the most serious cases – provided social distancing can slow the outbreak over the coming weeks – it remains to be seen whether there will be enough staff.

Already in Queensland, the challenge of dealing with a highly contagious novel coronavirus has disrupted hospital processes and rostering, and on Tuesday the first direct staff member infection was confirmed by Queensland Health. As of Wednesday morning, Queensland had recorded 943 cases of COVID-19, an increase of nine overnight.

An infectious diseases nurse at Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital is resting in home isolation after contracting COVID-19 while caring for infected patients. She tested positive on Monday afternoon, as the Government was making plans to fund hotel accommodation for staff required to self-isolate or who did not feel safe going home.

The nurse had been wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at work and, according to the department, followed proper procedure by staying home when she first experienced symptoms.

Nonetheless, six other staff who came into contact with the nurse will have to self-isolate for 14 days as a precaution. Elsewhere, unprotected staff who came into contact with patients have also been sent home, along with those who recently returned from overseas.

Queensland Health has repeatedly stated that there are sufficient supplies of PPE for the state’s public hospital system however frontline workers remain concerned they are being put at additional risk. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent to bolster the system, and in some cases retired staff and students are being added to the roster.

A group of doctors this week wrote another open letter to all Australian governments asking for the health of frontline workers to be given greater attention. More than 1000 people signed the letter, many relaying their own experiences online.

“International experience has shown that we are a very high-risk group for COVID-19 infection, illness and death,” the letter states.

“While we understand that federal and state governments are making efforts to protect staff, we do not feel confident that our safety and wellbeing is currently getting sufficient attention, resources or practical results.

“These measures are critical to protect not only us, but our families, patients, and the functioning of our healthcare systems. If we are infected, we might inadvertently pass COVID-19 on to others, including our families and vulnerable patients.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday released modelling done by the Doherty Institute, and based on overseas data, to suggest that if social distancing, quarantine and home-isolation measures continued the number of severe cases would not overwhelm intensive care units.

However, the institute looked at bed numbers alone, not the staff and supplies needed to service them.

“Importantly, we do not consider health care worker absenteeism due to illness, carer responsibilities or burnout – all of which are anticipated challenges over a very prolonged epidemic accompanied by marked social disruption,” the modelling states.

“We also cannot account for shortages in critical medical supplies as the true extent of these and their likely future impacts on service provision are presently unknown.”

Queensland Health’s Dr John Wakefield today insisted the hospital workforce was “very resilient” and, with lower level elective surgery postponed, now had staffing capacity in reserve to deal with any scenario.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk today revealed initial modelling had predicted 30,000 deaths in Queensland alone. She said the community had to take some credit for slowing the spread of the virus, keeping the number of deaths as of Wednesday to five.

Palaszczuk also wished the infected PA hospital nurse “a speedy recovery”.

Morrison today outlined the governments’ response to the pandemic, and economic crisis, in a special sitting of parliament in Canberra. He said 500 million masks were on order, in addition to those being manufactured locally, and 30 million had arrived in recent days.

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