Director of Public Health Caroline McElnay pushes back on concerns hospital understaffing is putting COVID-19 patients at risk

Director of Public Health Dr Caroline McElnay is pushing back against claims understaffing at Auckland hospitals is limiting the number of COVID-19 patients who can be cared for. 

On Friday, the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) raised concerns about staffing levels at hospitals in the Auckland Metro DHBs, saying it's putting patient care at risk.

There are more than 1700 hospital beds across Auckland and more than 100 ICU beds. But NZNO Lead Organiser Christina Couling said while there might be enough beds, there aren't enough nurses. 

"The strain on Auckland health care workers right now is enormous. Each of the three Auckland DHBs has 300-400 nursing vacancies at present and, on top of this, members say a lot of staff are taking sick leave which puts even more pressure on those remaining at work.

"Auckland hospitals may be at less than 100 percent bed capacity, but in many cases there are not enough staff to provide the care required for patients who are seriously unwell with quite complex needs."

Overall hospital occupancy is at 86 percent, with ICU occupancy at 70 percent and ventilator occupancy at around 15 percent.

An increase in home isolation is also putting nurses under pressure, Couling said. 

"There are now several-hundred such referrals every day and demand for service is growing at a rapid rate. It is a real concern that the system simply does not have the capacity to handle this, and that this could result in more deaths among COVID patients isolating at home."

On Friday, Dr McElnay said 3000 people are isolating at home - including 1382 cases across 929 households 

When asked about the NZNO claims, Dr McElnay said Auckland DHBs have assured her they can manage the cases. 

"I base my statements on the conversations that we have had with the District Health Boards and the chief executives there and the senior managers there, and that's what they have been telling us: with the numbers that we are seeing, and what we project in the near-term, we do have the capacity." 

McElnay also urged anyone islating at home to reach out for medical help if they need it. She said the health system can cope with the current and forecasted numbers of hospitalisation. 

There were 201 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday - 181 in Auckland, 15 in Waikato, four in Northland and one in Taranaki. The other five Taranaki cases will be recorded on Saturday.