Victoria’s COVID-19 outbreak is straining an already stretched healthcare system, with hundreds of hospital workers furloughed and some staff facing the “toughest time” in their careers.
- Hundreds of workers at Royal Melbourne Hospital will be furloughed after a COVID-19 outbreak
- The cluster stems from an infected patient from Shepparton who came to the hospital for surgery
- Staff in the healthcare sector say they are being stretched to breaking point
There are at least seven cases so far linked to the Royal Melbourne Hospital cluster, with three of those to be included in Sunday’s tally.
Health authorities believe the outbreak stems from a Shepparton man who attended the hospital for medical procedures.
From an email sent to employees, the ABC understands two positive COVID patients were identified on Ward 6 South East of Royal Melbourne Hospital’s City Campus on Friday.
Three positive staff members were also identified, one of whom worked on Ward 4 North of the City Campus during several days between August 13 and August 20.
It has resulted in hundreds of healthcare workers at the hospital being furloughed and told to isolate in an attempt to bring the outbreak to ground.
It follows the declaration of Werribee Mercy Hospital as a tier 3 exposure site following a positive test from a patient on Thursday.
There are fears the outbreak could lead to a similar scenario to last year’s Royal Park campus cluster, which shut down four wards and infected around 200 staff members.
Stephen Parnis, a Melbourne emergency physician and former president of the Australian Medical Association, said the clinical impact of the furloughing would be significant.
“The risk of not getting the right tests or getting inappropriate tests, those things go up.”
The increased workload triggered by a mass furloughing of staff will have flow-on effects onto an already strained system, according to those working in the sector.
Ambulances carrying patients were turned away at Sunshine and Footscray Hospitals earlier this month after 220 staff were forced into isolation.
It is expected this could occur again at Royal Melbourne Hospital, but general secretary of the Victorian Ambulance Union Danny Hill said it could not be avoided.
“The worst thing to do would just be to completely crush a hospital that is understaffed,” he said.
Premier Daniel Andrews said on Saturday that while elective surgeries were still going ahead, that could change.
Dr Parnis said providing those services to Victorians remained crucial.
“When elective surgery is delayed, it can become an emergency. It is very reasonable to keep going with it, but that is always predicated on having the services and space available to do that,” he said.
An already overworked system
Dr Parnis said the furloughing would add to the stress of healthcare workers in a prolonged battle against COVID-19.
“It’s just another weight you have to carry on your shoulders,” he said.
He said he had received encouragement from fellow healthcare workers to keep voicing his concerns, with many of his colleagues feeling they could not openly express their frustrations.
He now fears the healthcare sector is reaching a breaking point.
“I am anxious about what the next couple of weeks and beyond hold. We have a population that is much more aware of the issues but I’m also worried that they’re very tired,” he said.
“It’s not a cliche, it is the toughest time in my career that spans 30 years. So I worry more for those with less experience and less seniority.”
The union’s Mr Hill has seen similar anxieties with paramedics.
“People are just over it. They’re burnt out, they’re fatigued. It’s really taken a toll on them,” he said.
Mr Hill said the constant cycle of lockdowns and outbreaks had given healthcare workers a grim outlook for the future.
Paramedic callouts have typically increased after lockdowns.
“Those patterns are very depressing and frustrating for the troops out there when they know it’s only going to get worse,” he said.
Low morale and high workloads in hospitals
Joshua McCallum is a clinical nurse specialist at a Melbourne hospital and said the healthcare sector had been beaten down by the pandemic.
“Morale has been low since the end of the last lockdown. I don’t think morale has ever really improved,” he said.
He said he and his work colleagues were abused by patients and their families, often multiple times in a shift, as they grappled with taking on more patients than guidelines allowed.
“I can understand why patients are reporting back to their family members they’re not getting the treatment they deserve, because they’re not,” he said.
Mr McCallum was furloughed last year during an outbreak, and said the workload became untenable as staff struggled to keep up.
“It always elevates. I know last time this happened, staffing was one [staff member] to 10 patients for a few of the shifts,” he said.
“You can’t blame anyone for it, except just the fact we do not have enough nurses,
Pre-operative testing protocols change after outbreak
Contact tracers are still working to identify the source of the outbreak and how the virus spread from the ICU to radiology and cardiac wards.
Department of Health deputy secretary of COVID response Kate Matson said the hospital did not deem the Shepparton man a COVID-19 risk at the time of his admission.
“There wasn’t a known risk in Shepparton, so at that point in time there was no reason to necessarily test that gentleman prior to his surgery,” Ms Matson said on Sunday.
“We are now working with our health system to reintroduce pre-operative testing.”
While Danny Hill was not aware of the details of the recent outbreak, he reiterated that hospital staff followed all protocols stringently.
“The paramedics, the nurses, the doctors, they know the risk. They’re treating every patient as a dangerous situation. They’re very meticulous and careful,” he said.
“If there is an error there, I can guarantee it wouldn’t be through not following protocol or procedure.”
Whatever the cause of the outbreak, Mr Hill believes the health system needs help from all Victorians to get through the outbreak.
“This is a community issue. We need to get people taking responsibility for their own behaviour,” he said.