31 May 2022

A look behind the headline figures: how COVID-19 is managed in Canberra's hospitals

| Lottie Twyford
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COVID-19 patients in hospital can be cared for in their ‘home ward’, in the COVID-19 ward or under a Medihood (pictured). Photo: Canberra Health Services.

Soaring COVID-19 hospitalisations over recent weeks and dire warnings from the Territory’s health authorities about what this winter could bring have prompted some to question how the ACT’s hospitals are managing almost 100 COVID patients at a time.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that an announcement of COVID-19 hospital numbers in the tens was accompanied by a sombre press conference. But Canberra Health Services Executive Director of Cancer and Ambulatory Support Cathie O’Neill said it’s important that data is better understood.

First, the headline figure, which ACT Health reports every day, captures everyone admitted to hospital with COVID-19 until they are discharged. That includes people in hospital for another reason entirely, and it also includes people who have been completely cleared of their infection but remain in hospital.

So although Health might say there were a record 93 people with COVID-19 in the ACT’s hospitals yesterday (31 May), the number of active infections is often only a third of that.

Ms O’Neill acknowledged an enormous discrepancy between the headline figures and the actual number of COVID-19 patients in the system but said those numbers are being reported in line with Commonwealth guidelines.

“Even if the number is not as high as it seems, it is all contributing to the strain on the system and it’s all increased pressure,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter what’s causing that pressure … we have to be able to manage it.”

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A big change in the management of COVID-19 cases took place back in January of this year as Omicron surged across the Territory and cases spiked.

Back then it was determined that COVID-19 patients could stay in their ‘home ward’ if they were in hospital for another reason rather than being moved to the COVID-ward specifically.

If somebody has come in for something else and they happen to test positive for COVID-19, but they have no symptoms whatsoever, they stay in their usual ward. If they have respiratory symptoms, they are either cared for under a Medihood or moved to a COVID-19 ward.

A Medihood creates a negative pressure (isolation) bed space.

“We’ve learned throughout the pandemic how to care for COVID-19 patients and we do that kind of analysis and moving around daily … [organising bed allocations] is like an enormous giant game of Tetris,” Ms O’Neill said.

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A nurse, who spoke to Region Media on condition of anonymity, said she and her colleagues do have some concerns about COVID-19 patients being kept on the same wards as other patients.

She also said it’s increasing the amount of pressure on nurses as they are forced to consider the order they will attend to patients and spend additional time donning and doffing personal protective equipment (PPE).

Ms O’Neill acknowledged that issue.

“It does require additional resources and additional nursing hours, for example,” she said.

“Nurses are very good at protecting their patients – we do it with all kinds of infections, not just COVID-19.

“While we have seen some hospital exposures, we don’t have evidence of significant patient-to-patient transfer of the virus, so we are comfortable that what we’re doing is safe.”

Ms O’Neill is concerned about people who need to attend hospital actively avoiding doing so because of a perception the hospital is unsafe. She urged anyone who needs to attend, particularly those who are immunocompromised, to come forward to do so.

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CaptainSpiff9:07 am 01 Jun 22

“So although Health might say there were a record 93 people with COVID-19 in the ACT’s hospitals yesterday (31 May), the number of active infections is often only a third of that.

Ms O’Neill acknowledged an enormous discrepancy between the headline figures and the actual number of COVID-19 patients in the system but said those numbers are being reported in line with Commonwealth guidelines”

Kudos to LT for giving us a look behind the curtain.

Public health authorities are reporting a number that is 3x too big – and justify it by saying other states are doing it too.

It’s hard to even be surprised by this nonsense anymore.

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