As COVID-19 soars, doctors in Australia warn the health system is 'about to crack'

As the peak of the Omicron outbreak in Australia looms closer, doctors in NSW and Victoria share with SBS News the grim reality of a healthcare system that's battling to overcome soaring infection numbers.

Hospitals in NSW and Victoria are feeling the workload heighten as COVID-19 hospitalisations continue to soar.

Hospitals in NSW and Victoria are feeling the workload heighten as COVID-19 hospitalisations continue to soar. Source: AAP

As the country's east coast prepares for the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak, hospitals in NSW and Victoria are preparing for their busiest fortnight yet.

NSW recorded its deadliest day since the pandemic began on Friday with 29 people losing their lives to the virus, 2,525 patients are in hospital and 184 in intensive care.

Victoria faced a rise in hospital numbers too, with 976 patients in hospital and 112 in ICU as the state recorded 34,836 new COVID-19 cases and 18 deaths. 


And from within these hospital wards, doctors in both NSW and Victoria are feeling the pressure of a healthcare system that is being tested like never before. 

Based in Melbourne, emergency physician Dr Stephen Parnis described the current predicament in hospitals across the state as a "perfect storm". 

"We're all just trying to hold our heads and each other's heads above water," he told SBS News. 

Dr Parnis said the healthcare system has always felt the burden of working under the scarcity of resources - but the pressure hospitals will face this month is unprecedented. 

"Emergency doctors and nurses are accustomed to doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

"The difference at the moment during my career and the length of this pandemic is the pressures are never as great as we're experiencing at this moment."

He's warned that, as healthcare systems struggle to keep up with demands, his responsibility with his colleagues is to "minimise the damage" as much as possible. 

"I'm not nervous that [the workload] going to get worse, I know it's going to get worse.

"With the delays, with the shortage of staff and finite resources, things going poorly is inevitable." 

Another doctor based in a Melbourne hospital, who wishes to remain anonymous, told SBS News that the quality of care in hospitals is at risk of being compromised due to the lacking staff. 

"It doesn't matter how many resources or ventilators you have, if you have no staff to safely manage it, it doesn't matter and that's what's happening," he said. 

"You can have a sick patient in the bed in the hospital, but they're not getting any care because there's no nurse or midwife to deliver the care that they need."

He agreed with Dr Parnis, saying that healthcare workers like himself, nurses and midwives are accustomed to "running on fumes", even before the pandemic in what he described as "a fundamentally broken system". 

But this time, it's different. 

"COVID-19 increases complexities of the medical conditions, plus the staff shortages ... [the health system] is about to crack."

Meanwhile, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Friday modelling obtained by NSW Health reveals the state is on track to cope with the rising hospital numbers. 

"Whilst the health system is under pressure and our health teams are doing an amazing job, we are currently tracking at both an ICU and hospitalisation rate here in NSW better than the best-case scenario," he told reporters.

"That is encouraging, reassuring and pleasing."  

According to the state's health officials, NSW can expect to see hospital and ICU rates plateau after the next fortnight. 

But NSW Health Deputy Secretary Susan Pearce warned that modelling is just that: modelling. 

NSW Health Deputy Secretary Susan Pearce.
NSW Health Deputy Secretary Susan Pearce. Source: AAP

"That is pleasing but that plateauing [of hospitalisations] is obviously still at a relatively high level of COVID patients in this our hospitals and in our ICU."

"Behind every line and every dot on that page are people," she said. 

Mark Nicholls is a doctor based in an ICU hospital ward in Sydney and said his colleagues are worn out, but they remain "resilient" in the face of the growing workload. 

Despite the health sector planning for two years to ensure hospitals can keep up with the demand, Dr Nicholls explained that COVID-19 is constantly presenting new hurdles - and the most recent one is the shortage of staff.

"When staff are furloughed, those remaining need to work harder to look after the patient load we have at the moment," he said. 

"It is a very challenging problem and when you have a large number of COVID patients in intensive care, you've still got to look after the patients that don't have COVID."

4 min read
Published 14 January 2022 at 7:36pm
By Brooke Young, Rayane Tamer, Claudia Farhart
Source: SBS News