'The system is absolutely not coping': Hospital staff struggle as COVID-19 admissions rise

The situation is dire for frontline workers who are working up to 18 hours a day to keep up with the surging demand as COVID-19 infections continue to place pressure on healthcare systems.

Hospitalisations are overwhelmed as COVID-19 infections continue to rise.

Hospitalisations are overwhelmed as COVID-19 infections continue to rise. Source: AAP

Alana Smith* starts her night shifts every day in a Sydney hospital knowing she will be overrun by exhaustion when morning creeps up. 

As a doctor, she is working 12-14 hour night shifts and is feeling the strain of her hospital barely managing to cope with the rise in COVID-19 admissions. 

Amid personnel shortages, staff such as midwives have been forced to pick up tasks they're not accustomed to, like providing medication usually administered by a senior staffer, Dr Smith said. 

"The workers were like, 'I'm not comfortable with the situation.' I was like, 'neither am I, none of us are having a nice pandemic. We're just going to be uncomfortable,'" she told SBS News.

She's received calls from other hospitals in the state too, asking to transfer patients they can't cater for - a demand she can't bear either. 

"I got three or four calls in a row from other hospitals ... and I'm like, 'I don't physically have a space to put them." 

It comes as 1,344 people were hospitalised with the virus in New South Wales on Tuesday, and 2,510 health workers have been furloughed as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the state.

As staff shortages in healthcare worsen due to rising COVID-19 infections, Dr Smith said senior executives at her workplace are considering allowing COVID-19 positive hospital staff to continue working if they are asymptomatic.


Dr Smith described it as a "terrible idea", and is unsure how the system will cope when the state's entire healthcare workforce tests positive to COVID-19. 

"I'm worried about my patients in the community, I'm worried about the safety of my staff, and I'm worried about the safety of everybody in the continent, to be honest." 


Chris Kastelan has been a paramedic for 24 years, but never in his career has he experienced the sheer volume of triple-zero phone calls received to NSW Ambulance until now.

Strapped on with a fitted N95 face mask, goggles, a face shield and a gown in an Australian summer for up to 18 hours, Mr Kastelan explained the "suffocating" reality for many paramedics in NSW today. 

They're scrambling to control the demanding volume of calls as COVID-19 infections surge across the state, but he said the increased pressure has become "debilitating" for much of the workforce.

"After nearly two years of this [pandemic], the workforce is quite brittle and the morale is as low as I've seen it for over a decade. We really are looking for some relief," he told SBS News. 

Chris Kastelan is the president of Australian Paramedics Association (NSW) and paramedic of 24 years.
Chris Kastelan is the president of Australian Paramedics Association (NSW). Source: Supplied/Chris Kastelan

After arriving at an emergency department with a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19, paramedics like Mr Kastelin are often forced to wait hours in parking lots as hospitals face a backlog of admissions.

The more time spent in hospital parking lots, as well as the time needed to deep-clean their vehicles for the next patient, the longer the delays for other people across the state who are facing medical emergencies, he said.

"People are still having heart attacks and strokes and people are still having car crashes ... and any delay in an emergency situation puts patient safety at risk of an adverse outcome.

"The paramedic workforce at this point in time has been at the pointy end of the pandemic, they've been through quite a lot."

The state's Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant insists the health system is "very well placed", despite the stress being placed onto the state's frontline staff.

"It is important that we all play our part in not placing [an] unnecessary burden on the health system," Dr Chant said on Monday.

She stressed that people should alleviate the pressure of emergency departments by avoiding hospitals if they are requesting a PCR test.

"That potentially compromises the care of those that need it," she said.

Dr Chant reassured NSW residents the health system is available for those who need it, urging people with health concerns not to delay seeking treatment.

But another doctor in NSW told SBS News that it's "really disappointing and discouraging" to hear the government "burying the truth" when frontline workers are dealing with the immense workload in hospitals. 

"The system is absolutely not coping. I don't think you'll find a single healthcare worker who says that it is," she said.   

"To say that the system is coping is a blatant lie ... it's a real disservice to the public and it's quite offensive." 

Meanwhile, in Victoria, hospital departments are also under immense pressure - and their plea to Victorians is clear: don't attend hospital unless it's critical.

Western Health's emergency departments are facing "extreme pressure" as a result of the rising COVID-19 infections in Victoria.
Western Health's emergency departments are facing "extreme pressure" as a result of the rising COVID-19 infections in Victoria. Source: AAP

Western Health, which oversees five hospitals in Victora, has sent out an urgent message on Twitter for three of its hospitals that are experiencing overwhelming pressure.

"Our emergency departments at Sunshine, Footscray, and Williamstown Hospitals are currently under extreme pressure. Please DO NOT attend the ED unless absolutely necessary," the tweet read.

The state's Health Minister Martin Foley said he is concerned as all of the state's emergency departments were facing "unprecedented demand" that is growing every day.

"We are already seeing in the space of three days, more people being infected than over the course of the entire first year of the pandemic," Mr Foley said.

There are currently 491 people in Victorian hospitals with COVID-19, a rise of 148 in the past week.

And Victoria's COVID-19 commander Jeroen Weimar said he expected coronavirus hospitalisations would "increase quite rapidly in the days ahead".

Victoria's COVID-19 Commander Jeroen Weimar anticipates hospital admissions will rise in the state.
Victoria's COVID-19 Commander Jeroen Weimar anticipates hospital admissions will rise in the state. Source: AAP

"If we look at the experience in New South Wales, who appear to be about a week or so ahead of us in this pandemic, they're now starting to report quite significant numbers," he said.

Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, said the rising number of Australia's hospitalisations due to COVID-19 is alarming.

He said the health system will inevitably feel the pressure of hospital admissions as infections rise over time - even if the numbers seem relatively low now.

"If only five per cent of infected people go into hospital ... and you're getting 20,000 cases a day, that's an awful lot of people going into hospital," Professor Esterman said.

"Any hospital system would be creaking under that strain."

And while the health system faces a critical shortage of staff, Mr Kastelin commended the paramedics and other frontline workers who he describes as "the glue that's holding the health system together".

"The professionalism that they show and the dignity and respect they give to the community, their patients and each other is something to behold."

*Name has been changed. 

7 min read
Published 4 January 2022 at 3:15pm
By Rayane Tamer
Source: SBS News