Victoria has declared a 'Code Brown' COVID emergency. Here's what that means

Victoria's hospital system is under "extreme pressure" due to steadily high COVID-19 infections and staff shortages. But what exactly is 'Code Brown' and what measures will be put in place?

Medical staff walk past the emergency entrance at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne.

Medical staff walk past the emergency entrance at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne. Source: AFP

Victoria has announced a historic emergency crisis mode in its healthcare system as COVID-19 infections continue to soar throughout the state. 

With 1,152 people hospitalised due to the virus, 127 of them in intensive care and 43 on ventilators, the state on Tuesday on their strained healthcare system that is expected to worsen in the next month. 

The crisis mode is being called 'Code Brown'. Here's what you need to know.  


What is 'Code Brown'?

Code Brown is a recognised code across the country that is used by health services in light of an external emergency. It's aimed at developing a plan that will alleviate the pressures placed on hospitals. 

Code Browns are usually activated when a state is affected by transport accidents, chemical spills and natural emergencies. 

But this time, the government has issued the code on behalf of all metropolitan hospitals and six regional hospitals across the state. Private hospitals have the option of calling a Code Brown for their own facilities. 

Victorian Deputy Premier James Merlino said on Tuesday now is the "right time" to call the code as more than 4,000 healthcare staff have been furloughed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

"We've been saying now for some time that our hospital system is under extreme pressure and the risks we're seeing in COVID hospitalisations are testament to that," he said. 

It's the first time Victoria has ever issued the code system-wide. It's usually reserved for shorter-term emergencies, such as the 2016 thunderstorm asthma crisis and the Black Saturday fires. 

While other Code Browns have lasted on a short-term basis - up to two weeks - the state government said this emergency will last up to six weeks as they brace for the peak of the COVID-19 Omicron outbreak. 

How will it help the state's hospitals?

Code Brown is used by health services to plan exactly what the problem is and create a plan to mobilise the resources necessary to battle the crisis. 

As the wrath of COVID-19 continues to force more patients in hospitals with fewer healthcare staff, this Code Brown will be used to maximise the number of workers needed to cater for increasing hospitalisations. 

"If we see what we've been seeing in New South Wales, we could well get to over 2,500 hospitalisations and more over the next few weeks, so now is the right time to implement this plan," Mr Merlino said. 

This means staff in other healthcare sectors may be shuffled to assist in the hospitals' COVID-19 wards, in capacities they may not be accustomed to. 

"A nurse or doctor who normally works in elective surgery, which has been scaled back significantly, may now be redeployed, for example, to the emergency department where the caseload is much higher," he said. 

Depending on how severe Code Brown shapes up in the coming weeks, more non-elective surgeries can be postponed, and staff can be asked to cancel their leave to make up for the existing worker shortage. 

Is the federal government going to assist?

Following Victoria's Code Brown announcement on Tuesday, the federal government revealed it will activate the private hospitals agreement that was created in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

The agreement required private hospitals to provide assistance - be it equipment, staff, or other resources - to the public health sector when called upon. 

In return, the private hospitals will be financially aided by the federal government. 

This will see up to 57,000 nurses and more than 100,000 staff from the private hospital system deployed to the state's public facilities to relieve these current pressures. 

"It’s a workforce which is skilled, planned, appropriate and available," Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Tuesday. 

"The states and territories will where necessary work directly with the staff and with the hospitals themselves, whether it’s the large part of the private hospital networks and it will be up to the states and territories to activate those." 

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the pressures placed upon the health system is not just limited to Victoria.

Much of the country's hospitals, particularly in New South Wales, are dealing with great strain due to the impacts of COVID-19. 

"This is the first time that the health system has come under pressure to the extent that we're seeing in the last week or two," he said. 

Professor Kelly said each state and territory will face the peak of the Omicron outbreak at different times, but "certain states" are either currently at the peak, or close to it.  

Mr Hunt said the national medical stockpile is also being triggered to support states and territories undergoing resource shortages, but he is doubtful it will be needed. 

What about the rest of the country?

No other state or territory has issued an emergency code for their respective hospital systems so far. 

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet remains steadfast in defending his state's hospitals, despite 2,850 people in hospital with COVID-19, and 280 of them in ICU. 

"Despite the pressure on our health system, it remains strong and our health workers continue to do an inspiring and amazing job in keeping people safe," he said on Tuesday. 

5 min read
Published 18 January 2022 at 9:35pm
By Rayane Tamer
Source: SBS News