Emergency departments operating at 'breaking point' as winter illnesses overwhelm hospitals

Several emergency departments (EDs) around New Zealand are operating over capacity as winter illnesses continue to overwhelm hospitals.

Data analysed by Newshub shows at least eight district health boards (DHBs) were  operating over-capacity EDs last week. Christchurch Hospital was overwhelmed every single day, peaking at 151 percent on Sunday. Wellington's ED was full for more than two-thirds of each day, "regularly exceeding" well over 100 percent, while Taupo and Rotorua hospitals were "frequently" above occupancy.

"We expect there are going to be more patients here in winter, but this year there is just no capacity for this kind of outbreak and we're just at breaking point," says Auckland ED nurse Natalie Anderson.

Anderson says she's never seen hospitals so overcrowded in her 11 years as an ED nurse. Recently she's seen patients in Auckland being treated in corridors and in other spaces she says aren't suitable for medical care.

"It's probably one of the first times in my career that I'm really anxious about the idea of one of my family members having to be cared for in an emergency department."

Hospitals, along with St John, are asking the public to be patient this winter and are pleading with people to only ring 111 if it is an emergency. The phones have been ringing so hot this winter that the ambulance service has also reached breaking point.

"Our winter workload peak has escalated rapidly at a level we haven't seen before," says St John ambulance operations deputy CEO Dan Ohs.

Last week, St John received 1300 more calls and sent out 700 more ambulances than usual for this time of year. It means wait times have been high, but crews are bracing for it to get even busier.

"Our concern is that we're not yet seeing the peak," Ohs says.

To help coordinate the unprecedented demand, a national emergency operations centre is being activated in Auckland - a move not made lightly.

"We would only normally activate an emergency operations centre during a major emergency, for example for an earthquake, or a bus crash, or something like Whakaari," Ohs adds.