Omicron pressure on hospitals

4 Jan 2022

Blurred image of ED


Transcript: AMA Queensland President, Professor Chris Perry, ABC News Radio, Afternoons with Glen Bartholomew, Tuesday 4 January 2022

Subjects: Queensland COVID case numbers; hospital capacity; RAT kits; vaccination rates

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:     Queensland has recorded 5,699 new cases of COVID 19. Eleven people are in intensive care, two of them are on ventilators. There have been very long lines at testing clinics and some private clinics haven't opened as expected after the public holidays. People have begun queuing early for the sites, but the doors never opened. There are almost 30,000 active cases in Queensland since the state opened its border just three weeks ago. Dr Chris Perry is the President of the Queensland branch of the Australian Medical Association. Dr Perry, thanks for joining us.

CHRIS PERRY:     Thanks, Glen.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      The trend in positive cases is of course up all around the country, no exception in Queensland. What's your reading of the situation in your state right now?

CHRIS PERRY:     Well, we're all hoping that Omicron is benign for everybody. And I think that hope is misplaced. Omicron is going to cause a crush in the hospitals. The hospitals aren't big enough anywhere in the country. And people do get sick. So there's going to be a cut down in services, there's going to be very, very sick people with Omicron. There's still Delta around. Fortunately it’s not very widespread in Queensland, we don't know of many cases at all. So we're in for an interesting time over the next month or two.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      You would expect these kinds of exponential jump in numbers to continue for a while yet?

CHRIS PERRY:     Yeah, I think we're about a week behind New South Wales, aren’t we, and they have nearly 25,000 cases and they're probably only getting a small number of the people who are actually symptomatic and even less of the people who are asymptomatic carriers and spreaders.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      We heard earlier from your federal counterpart Omar Khorshid, talking about how he thought it was inevitable that elective surgery would be postponed as a result of all of this stress on the system. How would you describe the capacity of Queensland's health system to cope with all of this in regards to bed numbers and intensive care?

CHRIS PERRY:     We don't have any surge capacity at all. We just have to look at ramping numbers around the country, and Queensland is pretty good at ramping. So our hospitals are overly full. At this time of year there's usually very little elective surgery being done at any rate because of staff holidays - nurses, mothers, fathers, who are taking time off with their children. So often elective surgery is cut down considerably from between about a week before Christmas to about halfway to two-thirds through January. I imagined that significant cutback in like surgery will persist probably till the end of February at least.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      Is that stress on the system being recognised by those in government? In New South Wales there’s a bit of pushback to the State Government continuing to say that ‘listen, we're in a really good place, things are really solid, nothing to see here’ And yet people on the ground in the hospitals are saying ‘listen, we just know that's not the truth, they need to come and spend a week in intensive care’.

CHRIS PERRY:     Yes, the New South Wales Government has been optimistic from the start, certainly the last two months, and that optimism has usually been misplaced. And people are getting a bit sick of it, really. Look, the hospitals aren't going to be able to cope. There's something like 1000 people in New South Wales hospitals. They weren't there a month ago, the systems are going to be cutting back. Routine surgical lists in New South Wales aren’t great, and they're going to be made a lot worse by this, but people have to accept that. That’s just part of the business over of having no spare capacity to try to keep things as cheap as possible for the last 30 years. And so with no surge capacity, things have to be cut back and elective surgery will be cut back. We just have to try and make sure the elective surgeries don't include procedures which may find cancer or heart disease.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      Have you been hit also by medical staff having to be furloughed or take time off in isolation as a result of getting sick or exposed themselves?

CHRIS PERRY:     Yes, a lot of that, probably close to 500 in Queensland now I imagine. Those people can't go to work if they’ve got the disease. A lot of people have got symptoms and don't have the disease. We do need rapid antigen testing to be available in the hospitals, both public and private and, and for the GPs, the people working in the GP surgeries, to keep them open - to exclude those with mild cold symptoms who actually don't have COVID. We need things to continue and we need a rapid pathway for that testing.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      Let's look at that then - long lines to testing clinics, a lot of delays to results, likely the numbers are being underreported because some people have totally given up trying to get a test and now we've got some of these facilities actually not even opening their doors.

CHRIS PERRY:     Well, some people, if you can get a rapid antigen test and it says you’re positive, some people we know just don't want to go into lockdown. And if you don't want to go into lockdown and potentially get fined for not isolating when you know you've got the disease, they won't tell people. The regular antigen testing needs to be done, it somehow needs to be controlled. In Queensland, the tests are going to be mostly done through vaccination hubs and testing centres, GP practices, and hopefully those results will be recorded so that people do take it seriously. We can't just have millions of rapid test kits being bought by people who want to test themselves every day with no symptoms, because the pick-up rate’s about one in 3,000.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      What's your view on the situation with these rapid tests, big shortages, a lot of price gouging going on? Should the Federal Government be providing them for free, as we've seen in the UK, would that bring a little more certainty to people?

CHRIS PERRY:      Yes, provided they’re controlled. We don’t want them being picked up and packaged and sent to other countries. So they’ve got to be there for Australians, they’re Australian taxpayers. So there probably needs to be some control over the availability of them, how many you can get from a chemist shop, the price? Well, we won’t argue with that, but there is availability for free testing at various government centres and, and if people do qualify through a health care card, so hopefully, nobody will be disadvantaged who needs the test for genuine reasons, not just the worried well.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      I'm just reading a release from the Professional Pharmacists of Australia. The President, Jeff Marsh, is saying ‘listen, the virus hasn't changed just because the Federal Government's definitions and approach to testing has changed’. How do you rate this new living with the virus approach?

CHRIS PERRY:      Yeah, well, it's not a real good idea, is it? We'll find out over the next few months, whether throwing caution to the wind is the right thing to do. At the moment, the jury's still out on how benign Omicron is and what it does to the economy. Certainly, I'm speaking here from Noosa. And there's an awful lot of restaurants and tourist businesses which are closed, they can't get staff, and people want to stay away. They don’t want to go to a place where they could get the disease. So I think in Noosa, there was a lot more activity before the borders opened.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      How happy are you with the rate of vaccination in Queensland? Is it where you'd hope it to be now that access to those booster shots has been brought forward as of today?

CHRIS PERRY:      Well, we're behind ACT, New South Wales and Victoria. Our big issue is the Aboriginal population, as you know. I’ve been involved with the Cherbourg community for 35 years. Their vaccination rate’s 60 per cent. Yesterday it was 90 people infected. We know Aboriginal people have a high incidence of diabetes, obesity, a lot of smoking, so their chests aren’t great. They're not very good at resisting respiratory disease. We see this through from children to the elderly. So Aboriginal people are in a bit of trouble. There's a lot of vaccine hesitancy. So when I see that, I think, gee, these people on the fringe of politics who have been pushing out these vaccine hesitancy theories, they’ve got blood on their hands. I think it's just disgusting what's been going on Australia. The Aboriginal people believe it. And so do people in PNG, where the vaccine rate’s about 3 or 4 per cent. Once again, people pushing these conspiracy theories and exaggerating problems with the vaccines have got serious cases to answer, but they won’t. They’ll just get away with it. They get their bluster and they'll get their 15 per cent voting rate by the disaffected. They’ll probably end up in the crossbenches in Canberra. It's a real shame.

GLEN BARTHOLOMEW:      Dr Perry, thanks for joining us.

4 January 2022


Published: 4 Jan 2022