North Coast doctor sounds alarm over hospital’s ability to meet COVID demand

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An intensive care specialist has sounded the alarm over Northern Rivers’ ability to handle a growing number of COVID-19 patients – especially if parts of the community are not vaccinated.

Vaccination rates in the region have improved, with Byron Shire finally hitting the 80 percent single-dose mark over the past week, but the numbers are still below the state average.

The Richmond-Tweed area, as a whole, has a double-dose vaccination rate of 64.3 percent.

Lismore Base Hospital is designated to receive COVID-19 patients from Grafton on the Tweed and Queensland border, but intensive care unit doctor Rachel Heap said the 24-hour care capacity is limited by the number of employees.

“Without a pool of intensive care staff in our area, in Lismore, we can manage four intensive care beds,” she said.

Dr Heap said the local health system was “strapped” for resources.

“There is a real risk that our local health services are absolutely overwhelmed. [in the event of a COVID outbreak],” she said.

Chris Ingall is hopeful the Lismore Base Hospital will be able to handle a possible peak in cases over Christmas.(ABC News: Bridget Judd)

Nurses work overtime

There are still 163 nursing positions vacant in the health district after 19 staff were recruited last week.

Nurses and Midwives Association section secretary Gill Wilson said the high number of vacancies meant staff were working long hours.

“Most of the time we operate because of the goodwill of nurses who work double shifts, helping their peers and their patients,” he said.

Pediatrician Chris Ingall said it was a decades-old problem.

“We graduate a lot of nurses, but a large minority of those nurses choose to leave the profession within a year or two after graduation,” he said.

A man wearing a mask crosses the road in front of a hospital.
Intensive care at Lismore Base Hospital is often operating at full capacity, doctors say.(ABC North Coast: Bronwyn Herbert)

Confident Chief Health Officer

The acting chief executive of the local health district of North New South Wales, Lynne Weir, said Lismore Base Hospital has nine funded intensive care beds.

There are a few intensive care beds at Tweed Hospital and one at Base Grafton Hospital.

She said contingency planning was in place should the region experience a spike in COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization and ventilation.

“We would look at whether we would cut back on elective surgeries, and then we have experienced nurses in the theater who could also go and look after the intensive care patients,” Ms. Weir said.

A person is in a hospital bed and next to them is a person wearing PPE.
Chris Ingall says that not all patients requiring ventilation should be treated in intensive care.(Provided – photo file)

She said she was convinced that nurses specializing in intensive care could be recruited in the short term.

“We are passing through NSW as a network service and I think we will have capacity… we will attract them if necessary,” she said.

Dr Ingall said there were more than 70 ventilators at Lismore Base Hospital, some of which did not require intensive care beds to function as not all ventilations required intubation.

He said 30 or 40 of the region’s current COVID-19 patients were children and he expects those numbers to increase “at least by the hundreds” with a peak around Christmas and Boxing Day.

“Yes, intensive care will be full, but the wards will be full of people with COVID who need ventilation to the point of needing a tube,” he said.

A man with a blue shirt and a stethoscope around his neck stands in the hallway of a hospital.
Joe Duncan says about 50 COVID-19 patients in northern rivers are being treated through virtual care.(Provided: NSW Health)

Switch to virtual care

Health officials say about 90% of COVID cases can be treated at home through the virtual care model, which relies on patients having regular contact with medical staff.

Lismore pulmonologist Joe Duncan said about 50 patients in northern rivers were being treated by the service.

“We can assess the person over the phone, on video and in some situations we can go to their home to assess them,” he said.

Mr Wilson said he would like to take community members hesitant about vaccination inside the intensive care unit for a reality check.

“Don’t roll the dice,” he said.

There have been 115 cases reported in the local health district since the start of the current outbreak in NSW.

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