Victoria’s frontline healthcare workers worried about decision to ease COVID restrictions

By Melissa Coade

Friday September 17, 2021

Lisa Fitzpatrick, Victorian branch secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, warned of the real risk of burn-out among the state’s ranks of nurses. (Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation)

A coalition of unions and professional bodies representing nearly 120,000 healthcare workers in Victoria has called on the state government to make evidenced-based decisions over how to ease COVID-19 restrictions.

The groups have made a direct appeal to state premier Daniel Andrews to ask that no decision about easing public health restrictions in Victoria be made purely on the basis of ‘those advocating to ease restrictions – whatever the cost’. 

The concerns were outlined in a joint statement issued by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (Victorian Branch), the Victorian Ambulance Union, the Australian Medical Association Victoria, the Australian Salaried Medical Officers’ Federation, and the Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association on Friday. 

Lisa Fitzpatrick, Victorian branch secretary of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, warned of the real risk of burn-out among the state’s ranks of nurses. She described lifting restrictions without consideration of the stress that Victoria’s healthcare system was already under as irresponsible.

“Business interests and people’s desire to get back to nor140mal is understandable,” Fitzpatrick said.

“But surely a beer in the pub or a coffee in a café cannot happen at the cost of exhausted healthcare workers wearing uncomfortable tier 3 PPE shift, after shift, in a health system making impossible decisions about who gets a bed and spiralling deaths each week.”

The representative groups have said steps to gradually lift lockdown and other public health restrictions must consider three key issues: what is best for public health, accurate modelling, and the capacity of the hospital and healthcare system to safely manage escalating COVID case numbers. 

“As Victoria’s COVID positive numbers climb, we are seeing hundreds of Victorians admitted to Hospital in the Home (HITH) COVID services, increasing hospital and intensive care admissions and longer stays to recover,” the coalition statement read.

“We need accurate modelling for expected ambulance demand, hospitalisations, intensive care patients and deaths due to the Delta variant into the future.”

Significant efforts to meet these challenges had already been made by Victoria’s healthcare workers, the groups said, with the introduction of new mental health programs to ease pressure on emergency departments and other mental health services. Plans have also been set in motion to transfer pregnant women from across the state to two metropolitan services, they said.

“Victoria’s health professionals are burning out and are rightly fearful that as numbers increase as restrictions ease our hospitals will be full of COVID patients and non-COVID patients will find it difficult to access a bed. We need Premier Andrews to hold the line and ensure our health system is not overwhelmed as COVID cases rise,” the letter read.

From midnight on Friday, the Victorian premier added a sixth reason that people will be permitted to leave their homes under the current COVID-19 stay at home orders: for outdoor social interaction.

“We know that this is what the community is craving – the notion to be able to see people that they love and care for, the notion of being able to visit with other people,” Premier Andrews told reporters at a press conference on Thursday.

“That has to be done safely, and that’s why the Chief Health Officer has recommended and cabinet has endorsed that for this new category of outdoor social interaction: one person may meet with another person not from their household for a picnic or another outdoor activity, regardless of whether they are vaccinated. Those who are fully vaccinated can meet in a group of up to five adults, plus their dependents, from as many as two households.”

Permitted exercise and outdoor social interaction in Victoria will now been increased from two to four hours, and people will be allowed to travel within 10 kilometres from their homes.

From Saturday, two people will be permitted to train outdoors with a personal trainer, skate parks and outdoor exercise facilities will reopen, grandparents will be allowed to babysit children where one person in a family is an essential worker, and vacant property inspections will resume by appointment.

The groups also underscored their concerns about vaccination targets — pointing to the Doherty Institute modelling upon which Australia’s national plan to respond to COVID-19 is based, which defines targets for easing restrictions according to 80% vaccination of the eligible Australian population over 16.

“This is 60% of the total population. The model does not consider the impact on the 40% of unvaccinated Australians (the 20% 16 years and above and those under 16 years of age) or examine vulnerable groups including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” the letter read.

Dr Roderick McRae, Victoria’s president for the Australian Medical Association and Australian Salaried Medical Officers’ Federation Federal Assistant Secretary, said that the strain on the state’s healthcare system was unprecedented. He said it was reckless for the government to relax Victoria’s current public health restrictions and acknowledged that there were ‘no simple solutions’ to managing COVID-19.

“Now is not the time to open up,” McRae said. 

“Stress is being felt across the system including in primary care, HITH outreach care for COVID-19 patients, and caring for admitted patients both with COVID-19 and other medical illnesses.”

“The healthcare system is currently stressed related to general practice exposure and COVID-19 hospital spread in hospitals, resulting in loss of important medical, nursing and allied healthcare staff. 

“These staff also can be exposed to COVID-19 in their domestic and community situations, including other family or household members or child education facilities,” he added.

McRae said it was more appropriate to reassess the state government’s policy when 80% of people aged over 12 in Victoria were two weeks away from receiving their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine

“AMA Victoria understands the implications of its policy but there are no simple solutions related to the management of COVID-19. This is simply the least bad option.”

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