UPDATED 2:00 pm: More than 500 community members with a nursing or medical background have responded to last week’s call out for help from Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith.
Plans are also underway to let current medical and nursing students bolster the ranks of the ACT’s health workforce.
Currently, around 700 Canberra Health Services staff are either in quarantine or isolation, and only today it was revealed a team member at the University of Canberra Hospital had unknowingly worked three shifts while infectious with COVID-19.
Some of the 500 people who expressed their interests in helping with the government’s outbreak response already had current registrations, allowing them to return immediately to the workforce.
Canberra Health Services interim chief executive officer Dave Peffer explained that around 100 of the 500 respondents were already in the process of being onboarded.
“Currently, we have the majority of these workers in a clinical space so they are being deployed to our testing effort and as we look to scale our vaccination program,” Mr Peffer said.
Others have been able to backfill clinical team members in hospital as outreach teams have had to be deployed to both Condamine Court and the LDK Greenway Views aged care facility to conduct on-site testing.
Ms Stephen-Smith thanked volunteers across a number of different agencies who have already come forward to bolster the ACT’s COVID-response.
Individuals from the SES and other community firefighting units have been engaged to actively support people while waiting for testing and directing traffic.
Other firefighters and personnel from St Johns Ambulance have assisted the ACT Government’s contact tracing efforts.
The SES has also been supporting Canberrans in quarantine by delivering food packages alongside VolunteeringACT.
“We have needed all hands on deck as this outbreak has continued,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.
She said while the frontline workforce is currently extremely busy, morale is remaining high.
“They know they are doing what they are doing to protect and support their fellow Canberrans so that really gives people the motivation to keep up the work.
“Of course, within the ACT Health directorate and within Canberra Health Services and right across the public service and in our community partners, people are working really hard to support their own staff,” Ms Stephen-Smith continued.
She acknowledged that it can be stressful and anxiety-inducing for staff and essential workers who are coming to work every day and spending time out and about in the community where there is a risk of transmission.
“There is a lot of work to support people to feel safe and to ensure they can go about their work with moral support as well,” she explained.
It was reported today that a food service team member who worked three shifts at the University of Canberra Hospital has tested positive.
The staff member was unknowingly infectious for their shifts on 20, 21 and 22 August.
Mr Peffer explained that Canberra Health Services’ infection prevention and control protocol was enacted last night as soon as they were made aware of the positive result.
The risk assessment is ongoing.
Around 15 team members were determined to be close contacts of the positive case and have been put into isolation, and deep cleaning of each of the areas has occurred.
Mr Peffer noted that the risk of transmission to patients and clinical staff was deemed to be low and that the staff member had been wearing a surgical mask and goggles.
He said it is a timely reminder of the need to wear masks on hospital campuses.
Ms Stephen-Smith reiterated that alongside the new respiratory assessment unit at Calvary Public Hospital, Canberra Hospital already has a dedicated COVID ward which is ready to use if required.
“The unit will provide an area dedicated to respiratory patients who are COVID-positive or suspected to have COVID.
“This means these patients are not placed on short-stay or other in-patient wards before their COVID-19 status is determined,” she said.
This new unit will take the place of the current mental health unit at Calvary Public Hospital, but Ms Stephen-Smith said Canberra Health Services is working to maintain its capacity to treat acute mental health needs.
It’s expected that more people will seek acute mental health support as the lockdown continues.
While Canberra Health Services will continue to deliver health care as and when it is required, Ms Stephen-Smith urged Canberrans who have been identified as a close or casual contact to ring ahead to identify themselves as such before seeking healthcare.
12:35 pm: There are 30 new cases of COVID-19 in the ACT, a record number for the Territory.
At today’s COVID briefing, the Chief Minister said that 25 of these are linked to existing cases, while five are still under investigation. Thirteen people were in quarantine during infection, but of the remaining 17, it’s believed that 11 were in the community and six are still being assessed.
Among the four COVID positive patients in hospital, one person is now in intensive care and receiving breathing support. That person is a woman in her 40s who is unvaccinated.
“I know this case number will cause concern,” Mr Barr said. “This confirms what we know, that the Delta strain is highly infectious.
“It’s a high number but it’s important to look at the detail of the cases. Where there is a case in the household it is highly likely unvaccinated people in the household will contract the virus. We’re going to have days like this.”
Mr Barr said that vaccination is the only protection against infected family members and close work colleagues, but added that while there are now 167 cases in the Canberra outbreak, without lockdown and restrictions, “there would be thousands and the outbreak would be out of control”.
Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman said while the case numbers were “really high” compared to yesterday, the outbreak was following a pattern established in other jurisdictions as close contacts are infected.
Forty cases have now been associated with Lyneham High alone.
“While this is concerning, it does not necessarily mean that people are doing the wrong thing,” she said.
Due to the rapid nature of transmission, people may not have been identified as close contacts before they had time to go into quarantine and may have been infectious before displaying any symptoms.
Bright Bees childcare centre at Nicholls has now been identified as the ninth site for confirmed public transmission. There are three cases in that cluster.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said that as school contacts begin to come out of isolation, there will be pressure on testing sites. A total of 5655 tests were performed yesterday.
The Gold Creek pop-up testing site and Erindale have been closed to enable specific cohort testing, although Ms Stephen-Smith warned that this is for close contacts only, not family members or parents who might be accompanying students or staff.
Canberra Hospital has a dedicated ward for COVID patients and Calvary Public is also setting up a dedicated respiratory ward so COVID-19 patients are not placed in short stay or other patient wards before their status is known.
Ms Stephen-Smith said a University of Canberra Hospital team support member has tested positive; however, the infection risk had been assessed as low as the worker had been wearing full surgical protection while unknowingly infectious. The team member works in the food services area where there is an elevated risk of transmission to fellow team members. Deep cleaning has taken place at the site.
Mr Barr said over 12,000 people in the 16 to 39 years age group have registered on the My Digital Health Record site for the Pfizer vaccine at an ACT Government clinic. Bookings will open in September for vaccination in October based on current Pfizer supply.
Of the 85,000 Canberrans in this age group, Mr Barr said 21,000 had already been part of early vaccination rounds, meaning that 64,000 people would need to get their jabs. He urged people again to consider taking up the available AstraZeneca vaccines.
“Overall, our vaccination rates continue to be nation-leading, but it takes three weeks for vaccination to provide the maximum protection for you,” Mr Barr said.
“This three-week vaccine efficacy means daily rates being reported here and around Australia don’t reflect the actual level of protection here or elsewhere.”
The ACT’s goals are for everyone over 12 years to be vaccinated.
“The more Canberrans who are vaccinated, the better protected we are from the virus and the decisions of other governments that are beyond the control of the ACT Government,” he said.
Mr Barr said details regarding business hardship schemes are now online, providing up to $10,000 for those significantly affected by current arrangements.
Online applications will open at the ACT Government Business Hub. Commercial and residential tenancy protections from last year are also being re-started.
“In the interim, we encourage landlords and tenants to engage in good faith regarding rental payments during lockdown,” he said.
11:55 am: The ACT has recorded 30 new COVID-19 cases in the 24 hours to 8:00 pm last night.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said 25 are linked to existing cases; five remain under investigation.
Of the 30, 13 were in quarantine during their entire infectious period, 11 were infectious in the community and the remaining six are under investigation.
Four people with COVID in the ACT are in hospital and one is in intensive care.
Earlier this morning, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced that after three days of case numbers above 800, NSW has 753 new cases and no deaths in the past day.
The state has also delivered more than 6 million jabs.
Speaking on ABC radio this morning, she said the milestone would mean some additional freedoms although she did not outline what they might be.
9:40 am: The ACT Government is readying a specialist respiratory centre for COVID-19 patients as exposure sites swelled to almost 400 overnight.
Another 21 locations, including nine close contact sites, were added at around 9:30 pm last night, encompassing venues in Canberra’s north and south.
The Gungaderra Homestead Girl Guides meeting between 7:25 pm and 8:45 pm on Wednesday, 11 August has been added as a close contact exposure site.
The Coco Republic Construction site at 148 Bunda Street is listed as a close contact location from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm on Tuesday, 10 August; 1:30 pm to 5:00 pm on Wednesday, 11 August; and 8:00 am to 12:30 pm on Thursday, 12 August.
The Metropol Display Centre, Intermain, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority Head Office are all listed as close contact locations for various times and dates.
Supermarkets in Chisholm, Dickson, Weston Creek and Belconnen are now listed as exposure sites.
Anyone at Harrison Playing fields on Wednesday, 11 August, between 5:45 pm and 7:45 pm must monitor for symptoms.
See the full list of exposure locations online.
Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith confirmed this morning while speaking on breakfast radio that a mental health ward at Calvary Public Hospital is being cleared to become a specialist respiratory centre for COVID patients.
She said that all patients in the ward have been relocated to a purpose-built specialist mental health facility at Calvary Private Hospital.
Currently, there are four positive COVID cases in hospital, although two are being treated for other conditions. As of yesterday, none required ventilation.
The ACT Government is making preparations should the outbreak worsen, and there is operational readiness should the Garran Surge Centre need to be converted back into a COVID intensive care unit.
Demand for testing is also expected to surge this week as close contacts reach the end of their 14-day quarantine.
EPIC and the Weston Creek Walk-in Centre are operating as usual today, although Brindabella Business Park and Kambah will be closed due to inclement weather, as they were yesterday.
The Gold Creek and Erindale testing clinics will be used for targeting testing today. Erindale will be used for Lyneham High School and Gold Creek for the school and early childhood centre.
Ms Stephen-Smith this morning reminded Canberrans of the large cohorts who would need to come forward for testing this week.
She asked that parents of children who are close contacts do not come forward for testing at this time, saying that the risk to them would effectively be zero if the child returned a negative result.