New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklean has said the vast majority of health professionals she’s spoken to were “up for the challenge” of managing a potential surge in COVID-19 patients when the Australian state begins to ease pandemic measures once 70-80 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.
This comes after News.com.au exclusively reported that hundreds of intensive care unit (ICU) nurses had drafted a letter to the NSW premier and state health minister, saying they were “extremely concerned” about their ability to “provide safe nursing care under the current staffing levels afforded by the NSW government to ICUs around the state.”
When asked by reporters on Tuesday, Berejiklean acknowledged that of the state’s 140,000 health workforce, “no doubt” some people would be worried, but she asserted that the “vast majority” had accepted there would be a “stressful time ahead” and were “up for the challenge.”
“They’ve worked all their careers to support the community during the most difficult time, and none of us said it’s going to be easy and we put our hats off to all those people who are willing to put their own safety on the line to protect others.,” Berejiklean said.
But in the letter obtained by News.com.au, which did not reveal the names of the undersigned nurses, those concerned urged the NSW government to fix what they called an “ICU staffing crisis.”
“It cannot wait, given the rising numbers of COVID-19 positive patients requiring ICU intervention,” the letter read.
The letter claimed that the ICU nurses, along with representatives from midwifery and other nursing specialities, had sought to meet with the premier to discuss their concerns, but indicated this had not happened.
However, Berejiklean said, “I’ve been in contact with a number of staff and a number of health experts who’ve given government direct advice and obviously the Minister for Health is always in daily contact with staff as well.”
NSW Health has said it currently manages about 500 intensive care beds across NSW hospitals, with a surge capacity of about 2,000 when required. The state government has reiterated the hospital system can cope with increasing patient numbers.
There are about 2,000 ventilators available, one for each bed.
But NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association secretary Brett Holmes is concerned that ideal care won’t be provided to patients if the nurse to patient ratio is decreased as potentially planned during a surge.
“Their probable intention to staff them is by using a different ratio of staff to patients than would currently be standard,” Holmes told AAP. “(They’d be) using less experienced staff at the bedside and then having a supervisor, an experienced intensive care nurse, to oversee the work of four others.
“We already had a shortage of intensive care nurses before this outbreak. People were doing lots of overtime, there weren’t the ratios we believe are appropriate,” she said.
There are currently 116 patients positive with COVID-19 in ICU in the state. Along with non-COVID-19 patients, almost 80 percent of NSW’s existing intensive care bed capacity in hospitals is already filled.
Westmead Hospital in Sydney’s west has opened a makeshift “short stay unit” in the emergency department to help ease “ramping” delays in offloading COVID-19 patients from ambulances, which have stretched beyond six hours.
AAP contributed to this report.