With ever increasing pressure on health services across the nation and locally, how are health staff coping – and are there enough ICU beds and ventilators to cope with the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases?
While the Northern NSW Local Health District (LHD) says, ‘There are plans in place to surge staffing and ICU capacity, if and when required’, the question of how many ICU beds are currently available is not publicly known.
The Echo was told on August 18, 2021 that there were 20 ICU beds available across the region, yet when asked for an update this week, LHD Chief Executive, Lynne Weir, did not provide those figures, nor that of available ventilators.
Zoe Guinea from the Nurses and Midwives Association (NMA) told The Echo she also doesn’t know how many ICU beds are currently available.
Ms Weir did say, however, ‘From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern NSW Local Health District has been actively increasing its staffing and up-skilling its workforce in readiness to care for COVID-19 patients in our region’.
‘Additional training programs were developed for nurses, midwives, and allied health staff, with more than 265 staff attending surge training in Intensive Care, Emergency and Immunisation specialties to provide additional capacity to care for patients’.
Despite the increased numbers in staffing, Ms Guinea from the NMA said that there are a myriad of issues facing nurses and midwives in the north of the state.
She said that nurses in the region are doing a huge amount of overtime to fill the shift vacancies.
‘The health system was already broken before COVID-19’, Ms Guinea said. ‘The pressure on the sector is all over the State, but is exacerbated by the north coast region having the highest rate of unvaccinated people’.
She said, ‘The problems faced by LHD is that just across the Queensland border, health staff are paid better, and have better conditions’.
‘Adding to that, there is a lack of housing available in the north coast region. There’s no incentive for health professionals to move here.’
One of the issues the union has been pushing for is a staffing ratio of one nurse to four patients, something that is in place in Qld.
She says instead of ratios, staffing is applied retrospectively. As such, health authorities are ‘always playing catch up’.
But Ms Weir says, ‘Safe and effective staffing in nursing and midwifery involves more than just numbers of staff. It is about adjusting staffing to meet activity and patient complexity’. The methodology for determining staffing numbers is set out in the Public Health System Nurses’ and Midwives’ (State) Award, Ms Weir added.
Asked if she thinks the NSW Liberal-Nationals government would introduced ratios, Ms Guinea said she doesn’t hold any hope that the government will ever listen.
She said, ‘There was a strong voice around this issue at the last NSW election, and Labor, The Greens and Shooters Party all supported ratios. Instead, the NSW Coalition government promised 5,000 nurses’.
‘While it sounds like a lot, there’s also a lot of hospitals to staff. We are still waiting for a large proportion of those nurses to eventuate’.