Global coronavirus surge continues as pandemic preparation ramps up

Matt Woodley

26/02/2020 4:45:28 PM

The Federal Government has unveiled its emergency response plan for COVID-19 – but how prepared is Australia for a pandemic?

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The COVID-19 blueprint includes references to ‘surge capacity’ that has some doctors worried.

The plan, quietly released on 18 February and reportedly in place since 21 January, details three possible scenarios based on the severity of a domestic outbreak and describes strategies it would employ to respond to a local epidemic.
The worst-case scenario would involve ‘widespread severe illness’ that would ‘challenge the capacity of the health sector’, including primary care, which would be ‘stretched to capacity to support essential care requirements’.
The middle scenario – in which ‘clinical severity is moderate’ – would potentially require new emergency legislation to support ‘outbreak response specific activities’, ‘surge staffing’ and the establishment of dedicated clinics, as well as the deferment of non-urgent medical procedures and activities.
The head of a World Health Organization (WHO) mission that recently returned from a trip to China’s Hubei province has urged countries to step up preparations and warned that the world is ‘simply not ready’ for a global outbreak.
‘Think the virus is going to show up tomorrow,’ Dr Bruce Aylward told reporters upon his return to Geneva.
‘If you don’t think that way, you’re not going to be ready.’
A rapid escalation of cases and deaths in Italy, South Korea and Iran over the weekend has led to widespread predictions of a global pandemic.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt moved to reassure the public by indicating the COVID-19 plan has already been in place for more than a month.
‘What we’ve done, as you would hope that a government would do, is prepare for all eventualities. But so far in Australia, we have contained the virus on official medical advice,’ Mr Hunt said.
‘We’re not immune but we are as well-prepared as anyone else in the world.’
However, some emergency doctors have warned Australia’s already stretched emergency departments (EDs) will struggle to cope should there be a major influx of coronavirus cases.
‘I don’t want to alarm anyone, but there is no surge capacity ... we are full every day. We’ve be saying this for years,’ former President of the Australasian College of Emergency Medicine (ACEM) Dr Simon Judkins, tweeted.
‘We have patients in EDs for days, [and are] having 15–20 admitted patients in EDs at the start of a day, [as well as] treating patients in hallways – we are in a constant red zone.’
Professor Raina MacIntyre, Head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW recently indicated more than three million people would need a hospital bed if 50% of the population became infected, while one million would require treatment in intensive care.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), there were more than eight million ED presentations in 2017–18, while there are around 2000 ICU beds across the country.
In 2017–18, there were 62,000 available beds in public hospitals across Australia, with another 34,300 in private hospitals; however, the latter figure includes chairs, trolleys, recliners and cots.
Coronavirus cases in Italy increased by 45% on Tuesday, with the additional 100 confirmed cases pushing the total to 322, along with 11 deaths. Despite efforts to lock down towns where the outbreak occurred, the virus has spread to other parts of the country and Europe – including Austria, Croatia and Switzerland – as well as the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
Case numbers in South Korea have passed 1000, while Iran has 15 confirmed deaths – the highest number outside mainland China.
At the time of publication there had been around 81,000 cases worldwide, of which nearly 49,000 were still active with almost 8900 in a ‘serious or critical’ condition. There have been nearly 2800 deaths.
The RACGP has more information on coronavirus available on its website.
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