Point of no return: Covid teams shut down, state exposed if numbers swell

Health experts are warning that Covid guidelines remain too relaxed and public health resources too eroded to properly measure and manage the looming threat of a fourth viral wave.

Nov 17, 2022, updated Nov 17, 2022
The health sector is bracing for more Covid.

The health sector is bracing for more Covid.

Regional hospitals in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Rockhampton moved to tier three status as of Wednesday, indicating that patients with Covid are straining other clinical services as the forecast surge in viral infection begins to flow through the State’s health network.

But Griffith University professor of infectious disease and immunology, Nigel McMillan, is reserving judgement on the latest phase of the pandemic’s trajectory until more data becomes available.

One of the indexes he’ll be resorting to is rates of hospitalisation in major tertiary hospitals in Brisbane or the Gold Coast.

“At the moment, we’re seeing regional hospitals at capacity, which isn’t unusual, but once we see hospitals like the PA or the Gold Coast not coping, that’s when we’ll see a change in government response,” he said.

“But we’re not there yet.”

McMillan said that because people with symptoms were either not testing or not reporting their positive results from home rapid antigen tests (RATs) at a sufficient number, health authorities had a poor idea of the circulating levels of virus in the community.

“Our only real visibility of this virus now is through our hospitalisation rates, because at least then we have a record of what people are being admitted for,” he said.

“And hospitalisations generally lag the positive RATs (rapid antigen tests) by about 20 days, so it would be good to get more frequent reporting of the numbers, but government is reluctant to do that because we have Schoolies Week upon us and Christmas coming up and the attitude now is we’ll just live with this virus.

“But keep in mind we’ve had 13,000 deaths so far this year and it’s well on track to be our leading killer in 2022.”

McMillan said the virus moved in waves and he was observing the global shifts in its movement.

He said Queensland was about a month behind Singapore’s outbreak which lasted for two weeks.

“Hopefully our outbreak will be short and sharp as well, but let’s keep in mind that there is generally a lot more mask wearing in Asian countries than there is here,” he said.

Amid some criticism from some health experts and frontline clinicians, the Queensland Government has relaxed most of its Covid containment measures and according to some sources dismantled key teams within Queensland Health that virtually had the state on a ‘war-footing’ against the virus during previous Covid waves.

Those teams will not be reassembled in time if the predicted surge worsens in coming weeks, those sources say.

McMillan and doctors who have spoken to InQueensland say those resources may no longer be necessary, as the population has high rates of vaccination and medical teams are generally better prepared with their Covid procedures and anti-viral medications.

But the low uptake of Covid booster shots, currently about 60 per cent, is a major weakness in the State’s Covid defence, they say.

A Queensland Health spokesperson said all hospital and health services were carefully monitoring the current situation to ensure they had the flexibility and capacity to respond to changing demands and pressures at a local level.

“This includes redeploying staff to the busiest clinical areas and limiting movement around facilities, as well as maintaining strict infection control procedures such as using N95 masks in all high-risk areas,” the spokesperson said.

“Covid-19 is endemic in the community and will continue to mutate so it is important people remain vigilant and responsive by staying home when sick, washing their hands regularly, and keeping up-to-date with vaccinations.”

Australian Medical Association Queensland president Maria Boulton, said the heightened threat suggested the relaxation of Covid restrictions was premature.

“We always knew new waves of Covid were coming. It was too early to remove the mask mandates in hospitals and other healthcare settings,” she said.

“Everyone is sick and tired of Covid, but we need to keep some public health measures in place. We are heading into Christmas and people will be travelling interstate and internationally.”

Rural Doctors Association of Queensland president Matt Masel is also concerned the anticipated ‘fourth Covid wave’ and its management will be deflected to GPs, adding to the stress of increased workloads and financial pressures due to inadequate Medicare rebates.

“Queensland Health is relying more and more on GP teams to manage the bulk of Covid cases in this wave and keep people out of hospital,” he said.

“It’s not clear they realise how stretched the GP is already, and the Federal Government also needs to recognise this extra burden on GPs, while rebates for all patients, Covid or not, remain stagnant.”








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