Response ramping up

Sarah Luke

A MERGED public and private health system, expanded testing criteria and pharmacist duties and $1.3 billion in health care funding have been rolled out by state government this week, in the latest efforts to combat COVID-19.

Yesterday morning, Health Minister Jenny Mikakos announced a deal had been struck with the state’s major private hospitals to effectively merge the private and public health systems.

This will allow the whole health system to work as one to best utilise available hospital capacity.

The deal adds 9000 beds, 170 ICU beds, 200 emergency medicine beds and staff from the private hospital system to the public hospital system.

It also secures “many hundreds of thousands of jobs”, as nurses, medical staff, cleaners, cooks and security guards from the private system can retain their jobs.

In the past few days, a dedicated portal on the Department of Health website set up to receive expressions of interests from former clinical staff also had more than 4000 people register their interest to return to work.

Ms Mikakos said people should not divert their attention away from the flu, and it was more important than ever to get a flu jab this year.

Victorian pharmacists can now give flu vaccinations to children aged 10 and up, (previously 16 and up), and for the first time ever, pharmacists can attend workplaces to provide employees with flu vaccinations.

Ms Mikakos said pharmacists could also now administer other vitally important vaccines, such as rubella, whooping cough, measles, mumps, adolescent meningococcal and meningococcal vaccines, to young people aged 15 and over.

Victoria also widened its testing criteria for COVID-19 from yesterday.

The state is receiving fewer returned travellers than previously, and because of their forced quarantine in hotels, there has been a decline in close contacts and less exposure in the community.

This means the state government can shift its focus to test a wider group in the community.

The Chief Health Officer has expanded testing criteria from health care workers, vulnerable groups, returned travellers and close contacts to also include key public-facing workers and high risk patients.

This includes police officers, child protection workers, homelessness support workers, paid or unpaid workers in health care, residential care and disability settings, immuno-compromised or immunosuppressed patients admitted to hospital, and patients in high risk settings such as military operating settings, boarding schools, prisons and correctional facilities.

On Wednesday, Premier Daniel Andrews announced an additional $1.3 billion for the health system, expanding Victoria’s intensive care beds from 450 to 4500.

About $1.2 billion of the $1.3 billion package is to upgrade existing acute beds and turn them into intensive care beds, funding the equipment and the staff that go with them including ventilators, IV infusion pumps, patient monitors and dialysis machines.

The vast bulk of the funding is for consumables, equipment and personal protective equipment – including 551 million gloves, 100 million masks and 14.5 million gowns.

Some of the funding will go to training medical staff who may work in other wards, such as acute nurses, anaesthetists and clinicians, and giving them skills to work in intensive care.

The funding will include new spaces for intensive care beds at the Alfred, the Monash and Austin hospitals.

Construction recently announced at selected hospitals across the state is expected to be completed within the next eight to 12 weeks, with construction at the old Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute hospital to begin in coming days.

“If we all work together, perhaps we won’t see the need to be treating thousands of patients,” the Premier said.

“What we can be certain of though is if people do the wrong thing then, we will see this virus spread more rapidly, we will see the health system overrun and we will see many, many people die.

“If this gets away from us, the $1.3 billion I’m announcing today, the $500 million we announced last week – that will be nowhere near enough.”

Ms Mikakos said the funding was part of worst case scenario planning “to make sure that we are ready for the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“We certainly hope that we will never need to actually use this type of capacity in Victoria, and it’s incumbent on all of us to do our bit and to make sure this capacity won’t actually be needed,” she said.