Private hospital staff diverted to public system as Omicron wave results in Australia’s deadliest Covid day

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Con Chronis/EPA</span>
Photograph: Con Chronis/EPA

Seventy-seven deaths have been reported across the country, with 36 in NSW, 22 in Victoria and 16 in Queensland

Doctors and nurses will be diverted from private hospitals to the strained public network to help with the peak of Omicron cases, after the federal government activated a surge plan struck with the sector in April 2020.

As Australia recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic so far, with 77 deaths across the country, the health minister Greg Hunt said up to 57,000 nurses and more than 100,000 staff would be made available to Covid affected areas dealing with workforce challenges.

“It’s a workforce which is skilled, planned, appropriate and available,” Hunt said, saying there was “enormous capacity” that could be tapped to help public hospitals.

“They are clinically trained, they are expert. The people that have the capacity to step straight into a hospital environment, those that have training, the expertise, the skills, the knowledge, the history are the nurses, doctors and care staff within the private hospital system.”

The government will also make available the national medical stockpile for states and territories to access personal protective equipment in the event of any shortages.

“This is a moment for which we have prepared over two years, and enacting those elements is an important part of providing hope and confidence to the Australian public,” Hunt said.

The chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said he believed the past two weeks was the first time that the country’s hospitals had come under severe strain.

“This is the first time the health system has come under pressure to the extent that we’re seeing in the last week or two,” he said.

“I said on the weekend, and I stand by those statements, that we are either at or close to the peak of this in certain states.”

New South Wales reported a record 36 deaths along with 29,830 new cases; Victoria reported 22 deaths and 20,180 new cases, while Queensland reported 16 deaths and 15,962 cases.

South Australia recorded two deaths from 3,079 new cases, while the ACT reported one death from 1,860 new cases.

NSW chief health officer, Dr Kerry Chant, warned on Monday that a higher death toll over the coming days was likely.

The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, lamented the new record, saying it was a “very difficult day”.

“Often over the last two years, we can get focused on reporting the numbers but we should not forget, behind every one of those numbers is a loved one who passed away, or somebody who is in hospital ICU and going through a very difficult time,” he told reporters.

Related: Rapid antigen tests: Australian consumers miss out as government and big business snap up supplies

ICU admissions in NSW increased slightly to 209, while the number of hospitalisations rose to 2,850.

Chant said of the deaths, 22 were men and 14 were women; 33 were vaccinated and three were not. Those who were vaccinated “generally” had not received the third booster shot.

She urged people to get their booster shot, saying authorities’ efforts to slow the spread of the virus were to allow people to get their third jab.

“I really want the community to have a sense of urgency in going and getting boosted,” she said. “Having said that, we’re still trying to slow the transmission in the community because we want to give time for people to get those boosters.”

Perrottet reiterated that he believed his government’s resistance to calls for further restrictions was the right path forward, citing his hopes for a strong economic rebound.

“We believe the settings we have in place are appropriate,” he said. “While the health system is under pressure, we are currently tracking better than the best case scenario. That is encouraging, reassuring and pleasing.”

Perrottet announced the state can expect another 1.2m rapid antigen tests to arrive overnight, and said another 15m were expected to arrive within the week.

Queensland reported its deadliest day in the pandemic.

Three of the deaths were people in their 70s, eight in their 80s, four in their 90s and one person who was over 100 years old. Ten people were fully vaccinated, two had had only one dose and four were unvaccinated. None of them had received a booster shot.

The state’s chief health officer, Dr John Gerrard, said the virus was now “hunting the unboosted”.

“The virus does seem to be finding older people who have not received that third dose,” he said.

The state also saw a jump in hospital admissions, with 819 people currently being treated for the virus, compared to 702 cases on Monday. 50 people are in ICU, with 18 on ventilators.

But Gerrard warned that the jump in admissions did not reflect the peak of the outbreak in the state yet.

“The numbers are going up, there’s no question about that,” he said.

“That is what we’ve been predicting, we’re heading towards our peak, that is still projected to be towards the end of this month.”

Related: ‘Squandered any gains we made’: Australian GP clinics overwhelmed by rising Covid cases

Queensland’s health minister, Yvette D’Ath, announced further restrictions to hospital visits, in the hopes of reducing transmission at health facilities.

“This will limit the number of visitors at any one time to two people in wards, and one person in addition to the patient themselves who can attend in an emergency department,” she said.

In Victoria, a statewide “code brown” was issued for health services, which streamlines the state’s emergency management response to allow redeployment of staff to critical areas.

Acting minister for health, James Merlino, told reporters it was the first time authorities saw the need to introduce a code brown across the state, which will affect all public metropolitan and major regional hospitals from midday on Wednesday.

“We’ve been saying for some time that our hospital system is under extreme pressure and the risks we’re seeing now in hospitalisations are testament to that. We’ve reached a point in our health system where it’s juggling severe workforce shortages.”

“We’ve got more than 4,000 healthcare workers unavailable right now. We will see the peak in hospitalisations and ICU [numbers] over the next two to four weeks.”

The state currently has 1,152 people in hospital with the virus, a slight drop on Monday’s figures. 127 people are in intensive care, with 43 of them requiring ventilation.

The six regional hospitals the code brown will apply to are Barwon Health, Grampians Health, Bendigo Health, Goulburn Valley Health, Albury Wodonga Health and La Trobe Regional hospital.

“This coordinated approach will help ease the pressure on individual hospitals by better sharing the load across our system,” Merlino said.

Tasmania lifted restrictions on interstate travel for the vaccinated, as the state recorded 1,310 new cases.

From midnight Tuesday, fully vaccinated arrivals will no longer need to register their travel or take a test prior to travelling.

However, those rules do not apply to the unvaccinated unless they have a valid medical exemption.

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