Urgent call for nurses to fill shifts at swamped testing sites
The government has been forced to ask thousands of nurses and midwives to urgently fill shifts at Victoria’s coronavirus testing sites amid long queues and closures at some locations on Sunday.
The state’s health authorities conceded they were unable to “flick a switch” to immediately restore testing capacity at clinics, with many weary staff taking a holiday as 60,000 Victorians rushed home from NSW and required a test.
The MSAC drive-through test site in Albert Park was temporarily closed on Sunday because of high demand. Credit:Paul Jeffers
The lack of capacity led to criticism the state was left exposed by staff shortages and to calls for a better plan to meet surges in test demand during outbreaks.
Doctors suggested general practitioners, nurses from doctors' surgeries and pharmacists could be part of a reserve workforce.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Karen Price was concerned pregnant women, young children and those with a disability would struggle to queue for hours.
“I feel for our leaders, but clearly it isn’t satisfactory,” Dr Price said.
Three new local coronavirus cases were announced on Sunday in Victoria, all connected to the Black Rock Thai restaurant cluster, which has risen to 21 cases. In a promising sign the outbreak can be contained, there are no mystery cases to date and more than 500 primary and secondary close contacts have been identified.
"The public health advice is that Victorians should take great comfort from the fact that these are linked cases," acting Premier Jacinta Allan said.
However, new exposure sites continue to be identified across the state, and people were still enduring lengthy waits for testing. Age readers reported waiting times of between 45 minutes and four hours on Sunday.
Health officials said the average wait had reduced to an hour by late afternoon.
Mount Waverley resident Ben Yamin said he and his family managed to get tested after queuing at a Malvern drive-through centre from before it opened on Sunday morning, but only after ignoring instructions from traffic wardens to leave the area.
Ben and Amber Yamin, with their children Alina and Ayaan, are isolating at their home in Mount Waverley.Credit:Paul Jeffers
"They said … you're going to be here for six hours," he said. "They were talking to the car ahead of us and they were saying if you don’t go we're going to have to call police because you are blocking Waverley Road and it’s a hazard."
Mr Yamin and his family were tested at 11.30am after waiting in line for four hours.
"There's a lot of demand for testing and we just need more sites," he said. "And I don't know why we're not prepared for this. It’s been a year, right?"
Mr Yamin said that after driving home from their Gold Coast holiday through NSW, he and his family were told by police at the Victorian border they would need to isolate only until they received negative tests. They have since been told they will need to isolate for 14 days regardless.
Almost 22,500 tests were recorded in Victoria on Saturday, an increase of more than 150 per cent from Wednesday, when 8731 tests were done.
A Health Department spokeswoman said more than 60 testing sites remained open during the Christmas period, “including some sites that remained open on Christmas Day”.
Victoria’s COVID-19 response commander, Jeroen Weimar, said there were now 190 testing sites and some would open for extended hours to boost capacity, but he also said some may have had to temporarily close on Sunday as they reached capacity.
“We’ve added around 40 per cent more capacity on Friday compared to what we had planned to do … We’ll step it up again today but it’s not something we can turn on at the flick of a switch,” he said.
"The choice we faced before Christmas was, do you hold people over and not let them go on leave after they have absolutely flogged themselves for nine months? Or do you say no, you have to stand around on the testing stations on the off chance. We took a view that we needed to have the right balance of resources.
“We are asking people to be patient. People are getting through the system, it is just taking longer.”
The testing surge comes as Victoria’s state of emergency was extended until January 29, the government citing a remaining “serious risk to public health”.
On Saturday evening, a call went out to tens of thousands of nurses and midwives for their “urgent support to work in testing sites across Victoria, including regional areas”. They were told shift lengths would vary between six and 10 hours, and that travel and meal allowances could be available.
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Victorian branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick said while she was aware thousands had already registered their details with the recruiting nursing agency, many nurses were exhausted after a long and challenging year.
“Many of them hadn't had a break for more than 12 months, given people came back to assist in bushfire areas, then COVID was upon us quickly,” she said.
GP Mukesh Haikerwal runs a respiratory clinic in Melbourne's west and said that the clinic would have been able to assist in coronavirus testing on the weekend but was not given any government funding to do so.
The former AMA president said the state government had previously provided some extra money so the clinic could operate at the weekends during heightened demand to test for new local cases.
“We’ve got the facility, we’ve got the people … and that’s been forgotten again,” he said.
Victorian Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien said it was obvious there was potential for an outbreak before Christmas and the government should have staggered test site workers' leave and paid them extra to work through the summer break.
“We keep hearing from the government that this virus doesn’t take a holiday, this virus doesn't respect New Year's. Well that’s quite right, so why isn’t the government better prepared, why doesn’t the government have the resources we need?
“Chaos at testing sites doesn’t keep us keep safe and it won’t keep us open … Nobody should have to wait seven hours in a queue to get tested.”
Despite the significant delays at testing sites, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had confidence in Victoria’s public health system to deal with the latest COVID-19 outbreak.
“I do have confidence in the Victorian government and the response. I think to put it in perspective, Victorian testing numbers have more than tripled in the past week,” Mr Hunt said.
He said Victoria’s contact-tracing system had “dramatically improved” since the hotel quarantine leakages that caused its second wave last year.
“Our belief is Victoria is far better placed now,” he said.
With Ashleigh McMillan and Anthony Galloway
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