NSW Slows Down Covid Contact Tracing As Health System Cope With Omicron Strain | Health
The NSW government’s Covid contact tracing system has been all but scrapped, with efforts now focusing only on people in the highest risk categories.
NSW health authorities are under increasing pressure as the Covid Omicron variant increases hospital admissions, while its virulence means contact tracers have all but given up on tracking its spread in the wider community.
A senior NSW health official revealed to Guardian Australia that research will now only be carried out for the elderly and disabled, indigenous communities and prisons.
He said that even then the staff were “fully following” the cases.
“There is a big internal discussion about whether tracing is still worth it,” he said.
“People ask ‘what is this for? What do we want to achieve? ‘”
With another long day of waiting for Covid testing on Tuesday – and some sites turning people down – NSW politicians traded pikes over the severity of the state’s growing workload.
New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet has dismissed claims by the Labor opposition that the hospital system is at a breaking point, calling them “totally irresponsible” and “reckless”.
He admitted, however, that staff were overloaded as the state recorded more than 6,000 new cases daily on Tuesday, with 557 people hospitalized, including 60 in intensive care units.
“We have the best doctors and the best nurses who have worked tirelessly and I know there is burnout,” Perrottet said.
“We’re in a very strong position here in the state. We are opening up, we are learning to live alongside the virus. “
However, Ryan Park, Labor’s health spokesperson, said with more than 2,000 healthcare workers on leave due to contact or infection with Covid, it was time for the government to call for additional help.
“We have to be honest about it,” he said. “If they need the support of the federal government, if they need the resources and assistance of the federal government, and we have a national cabinet, ask for that help and assistance now.”
Within the healthcare system, there is growing fatigue after months of struggling to contain different variants of Covid, particularly Delta and now the more virulent Omicron strain.
Guardian Australia revealed yesterday that exhausted NSW health workers are being forced to return from Christmas break as hospitals and testing facilities are crippled by rising Covid numbers and staff leave .
Around 2,000 health workers have been put on leave across the state after being listed as close contacts, prompting NSW Health to reduce the isolation time for health workers from two weeks to seven days, provided that they return a negative PCR test.
Perrottet called for attention to shift away from the case numbers.
“What’s most important as we go through this next phase are our ICU numbers, [our] number of hospitalizations, ”he said.
Hospitals, however, were bracing for a further surge in patient numbers, as new Covid admissions more than doubled since mid-December.
Just over half of those present are positive for the Omicron variant, the rest having Delta.
A senior doctor said the number of new cases in NSW was likely well over 6,000 a day as many people were unable to get tested or did not bother to do so .
If the number of hospitals continued to increase at the current rate “by the end of January, we will be overwhelmed,” the doctor said.
For now, however, Sydney’s major hospitals, such as Liverpool in the south, have spare capacity they did not have during the height of the Delta wave.
Perrottet said the government had made changes to the definition of close contact with Covid for health workers, which would allow 1,000 more health workers to return to work. Previously, staff were unable to work after being exposed to a Covid case for a fortnight, and that leave had now been reduced to seven days, he said.
Gerard Hayes, NSW secretary of state at the Health Services Union, said the hospital system was not at the breaking point and the high use of vaccines and now boosters was making a big difference.
“The presentations in hospitals are not as bad as they were during Delta,” said Hayes. “Little by little, however, they kind of increase.”
“There is a fear among our members [who were] see a light at the end of the tunnel, and now that light is gone, ”he said. “There is a lot of apprehension, a lot of fatigue and a lot of frustration.
Park said the government had to “take the lead and make sure that an exhausted system comes back to life” with help from the Commonwealth or elsewhere.
Help could include assigning more staff to testing clinics or vaccination centers to free up staff for clinical work.
“I think the community right now doesn’t really care where they get this help from, but they can understand that [it’s needed] when they wait in a queue for six or seven hours to get a test, or wait whole days for test results, ”Park said.
“They understand that they need more resources and they would expect that I think governments are working cooperatively at all levels.”