COVID-19: Mounting concerns over health system's ability to cope with influx of coronavirus patients

There are concerns the health system will be unable to cope with an influx of COVID-19 patients.
There are concerns the health system will be unable to cope with an influx of COVID-19 patients. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Kate Gregan of RNZ

With the country recording triple figure cases for the first time since COVID-19 arrived in New Zealand, there is an increased focus on how the health system will cope.

There were 102 community cases reported today.

There are 46 people in hospital with the virus, including seven in intensive care or a high dependency unit.

Some experts say while the short-term surge will be tough, it is the future that needs some serious consideration.

ICU doctor and Professor of Intensive Care Dr Paul Young said with the current outbreak showing no signs of slowing, the pressure on the health system was significant.

"For a short-term surge, we will do whatever we need to do. We will adapt and we will compromise until we have used every piece of equipment that we have available.

"That will involve spreading staff thinner, and we can do that for a short period of time, and indeed we expect too, but we can't operate under an emergency surge model for an indefinite period."

Young's biggest concern was New Zealand's ability to look after an additional burden of patients every day for the next year.

A COVID-19 surge would see hospitals enter "emergency mode" - therefore scaling back procedures in order to cope with an influx, he said.

"That will mean cancelling elective cardiac surgery and elective cancer surgery that requires intensive care. But operating under an emergency model for a very sustained period of time will have serious consequences for patients and mean that we see worse outcomes for critically ill patients not just with COVID, but with every condition that puts people into an intensive care unit," he said.

College of Critical Care Nurses chair Tania Mitchell said healthcare workers were preparing for a disease that would remain for the foreseeable future.

"Longer term, it's much harder to maintain from a workforce burnout point of view, but also from a capacity point of view.

"We find now that we often don't have enough intensive care beds and we end up postponing surgery until there is an availability of an ICU bed and a qualified intensive care nurse to look after the patients, so that will just be exacerbated."

The Australasian College of Emergency Medicine president John Bonning remained optimistic and said the sector was not going to implode.

"It's going to be busy. It's going to be tough. We're going to need to strap ourselves in for a wee while," he said.

"We have a great health system with great people providing great care. We are under the pump but we will cope."

Mitchell said nurses up and down the country were waiting for COVID-19 patients to burst through hospital doors.

"We are as ready as we can be for that, but there is a nervous anticipation of what that involves, for not only our workforce and our colleagues, but also the patients.

"We don't want to see a large number of patients needing to be critically ill in hospital. Some will be dying from COVID."

Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said authorities would not let New Zealand's hospitals get to a position where they were overwhelmed.