Omicron variant: Concern over workforce crisis if EDs see patient influx

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Emergency Departments are preparing to see an onslaught of Omicron cases, in a New Zealand outbreak, heightening concerns about worker burnout.

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Emergency medicine specialist Dr John Bonning expects New Zealand primary health and EDs will be bombarded with people who are unwell, but not sick enough for inpatient care.

He told Morning Report that people are already waiting hours in emergency departments this summer for treatment.

“Unfortunately at the moment people are experiencing extremely long waits to get emergency care.”

Once Omicron arrived, EDs would have to deal with even more patients although it was fortunate that New Zealand now has a fully vaccinated health workforce and a highly vaccinated population, he said.

Asked if people should be seeking ED care if they got Omicron, he said for many people it feels like a head cold or flu.

“If you have chronic illness, comorbidities, immune compromise, older patients – they need to seek care. Call Healthline, try to see your GP if you’re not particularly unwell and only come to the emergency department if you’re really unwell.”

He said vaccinations for children and continued public health measures would help deal with any surge in Covid numbers, and he also urged people to be careful and sensible with their health.

His other concern is a possible workforce crisis, saying that staff will get sick if Omicron is circulating widely and the sector was already under duress.

“When you take further people off the frontline of healthcare, it’s going to make it even more difficult.”

Nursing resignations in the last 12 months, just as in Australia and other countries, have been at their highest levels ever.

“So it’s been really, really busy… Of course, we are all really togged up in PPE and N95 masks and goggles so that’s really tough in the heat too.”

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Meanwhile, intensive care specialists are watching skyrocketing Covid-19 case numbers in New South Wales with unease.

There were more than 35,000 new cases reported in New South Wales yesterday, amid a new wave of Omicron infections.

Although 94 percent of eligible people in the state are fully vaccinated there are 1500 infected people in hospital and more than 120 are in intensive care.

Australia and New Zealand Intensive Care Society spokesman Andrew Stapleton said despite Omicron’s milder symptoms, it can still overwhelm hospitals.

“If you give up on all the public health measures, don’t wear masks, contacts tracers don’t go chasing it down, you can get a situation where there is so much of it all at once that the small percentage of people who do get sick really build pressure on the hospitals.”

Dr Stapleton said New Zealand has fewer intensive care unit beds per capita than New South Wales and if Covid-19 cases fill ICUs, other seriously ill people miss out.

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