It looks like the $23 million pop-up emergency department (ED) at Garran Oval will not get as much of a workout as first thought after the ACT defied modelling and announced yesterday that there were no known active COVID-19 cases in the Territory.
It’s the second day in a row the ACT has been free of confirmed cases.
However, construction of the project – expected to be completed in mid-May – will continue despite the promising results, which could see the ED used to war-game potential pandemic outbreak scenarios.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith was adamant that the facility would be used, maintaining that it would remain a COVID-19-focused facility and will not be used for other purposes.
“We have been really clear that this is a COVID-19 facility, so what we use it for will be in response to the pandemic. But we have been talking about whether we leave the facility once it is constructed, ready to go as an ED, or whether we might be able to use it for some other things such as simulations,” she said.
“One of the things we have bought ourselves is time to train our ED staff, and our other hospital staff on how to support and treat COVID-19 patients, so one option might be to use that facility to do more simulation training.
“Another option might be to use it to do some respiratory assessment if we think we are ramping up our testing and we need more testing facility capacity, or we need more places for people to go and get tested.”
The decisions will depend on the Territory’s need, and the cost-effectiveness of each scenario as resources are most likely to come from Canberra Health Services staff, Ms Stephen-Smith said.
The Minister also defended the decision to spend the $23 million on the ED and continue with the project despite there being no active cases in the ACT, reiterating the Chief Minister’s concerns over the potential for a deadlier second wave.
The potential of a small number of cases exploding exponentially and overwhelming health systems within the space of a month, as has happened in countries like Spain, Italy and the US, was a major contributing factor to sticking to the original construction schedule, Ms Stephen-Smith said.
“If we do see a second wave, we will watch really closely and see what it is looking like and how our physical distancing measures – which may have to be brought back down from some easing – what impact we think that is going to have, and we will act really early,” she said.
“The reason that we went ahead and built this facility is the same reason that we would be acting really early, to ensure that it was staffed appropriately if we thought we needed it.
“When we made this decision a few weeks ago, we did not know where we would be today, we did not know if we would be here, surprisingly with no active cases, or if we would continue to see an increase in cases of COVID-19.”
This reasoning was echoed by Chief Minister Andrew Barr in yesterday’s (1 May) COVID-19 committee hearings when questioned by the opposition over the cost of the project.
“We all hope that we never need to use that facility, but there is so much uncertainty in this regard that it would just be impossible not to have that as an insurance for our community, and indeed for southern NSW,” he said.
“We just did not know, in the context of making a judgement call, both when the process commenced and when the contract was signed, and even today, I would much rather have that facility not used, than to have not built it and have our system collapse.
“We will take out this insurance policy to save lives. I hope we do not have to use it, but if we do, we will be very glad to have made this decision.”