Tasmanian Medical and Pathology Services Prepare for Influx of COVID Before State Reopens

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Machines hum quietly in the background of the pathology lab at Royal Hobart Hospital as workers focus on testing for COVID-19 samples.

It is one of the front lines in the fight against COVID, as the state prepares to open the borders on December 15.

The machine takes about four hours to process the sample, and the result is then analyzed for traces of viruses.

The laboratory is being modernized to be able to process 5,000 tests per day.

Tasmania has had time to prepare for living with COVID and Secretary of State for Health Kathrine Morgan-Wicks said the community has learned from interstate experiences.

The Omicron variant was logged into the Launceston Emergency Care Center data system to aid in strain identification.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Large stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) have been set aside to avoid shortages seen during the outbreak in the northwest in early 2020.

These include 3.7 million N95 masks, 6.3 million surgical masks, 20 million gloves and 54,000 liters of hand sanitizer.

COVID patients will be able to bypass emergencies

Modeling released by the government shows that if public health restrictions, such as social distancing and use of the Check in TAS app, remain the same as today, there will be nearly 52,000 cases over the course of of the first 200 days.

The numbers to watch will be the number of hospitalizations – the peak in mid-April is expected to see 242 hospital beds and 68 dedicated intensive care beds occupied by COVID-positive patients.

Female staff member in pathology laboratory.
Tasmania currently has no active cases of COVID in the community.

A key part of state preparedness is establishing systems to prevent overloading hospitals.

Asian tourists at Wineglass Bay
Tasmania is on the verge of lifting its restrictions on travel to the state from COVID hotspots.(ABC News: David Hudspeth)

It is estimated that 90% of COVID-positive patients will be cared for at home, with a team of clinicians able to monitor them remotely.

There are 2,500 COVID @ home packs ready for distribution that will remotely relay temperature, pulse and blood oxygen level data.

Ms Morgan-Wicks said the 24-hour monitoring facilitated by COVID @ home would mean that if a patient’s condition worsened and they required hospital care, they could bypass the emergency department.

Medical kits in preparation.
It is hoped that taking care of mild cases of COVID at home will help ease the burden on hospitals.(ABC News: Piia Wirsu)

When the bed block and COVID collide

State emergency services have long struggled with overcrowding and blocked access.

In 2019, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine named Launceston General Hospital as the highest number of stranded beds in the country, with the Royal Hobart coming in second.

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What is a bed block?

This is a concern of concern to health workers.

“At the moment, everyone is talking about blocking access and overcrowding; it is certainly a topic on everyone’s agenda,” said Dr Juan Ascencio-Lane, president of the faculty of College Tasmania.

For Peg Smith, the bed block became obvious after an emergency trip to Launceston General Hospital.

She needed emergency surgery after her finger was torn apart by a power tool.

Peg Smith looks at the camera.
Peg Smith is nervous about what will happen after December 15th.(ABC News: Piia Wirsu)

Ms Smith was sent home with no beds available, sat in the ambulance bay as there were nowhere else, and waited hours for antibiotics.

“It wasn’t until 9:30 am Wednesday morning – 52 hours later – that I was taken for surgery,” she said.

“I really feel for people under the pressure they are under and I really don’t know how [borders opening] will go.”

Sample being prepared for pathology analysis.
Modeling has predicted a sharp increase in COVID cases after Tasmania reopens. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Tasmania “better placed” than other states

Dr Ascensio-Lane said everyone in the system has worked hard to prepare and the system is in a better position than when other states reopened.

“We are in a better position than what Victoria and New South Wales were and part of that is due to the public – they have all been vaccinated,” he said.

“We have to make sure that from now on we are working to the best of our ability with the facilities we have.”

Dr Juan Ascencio-Lane looks at the camera.
Dr Juan Ascencio-Lane.(ABC News: Piia Wirsu)

He said new constituencies had been opened and staff had been recruited before the borders opened.

“These are positive improvements, but we always want more and we always want better in all emergency services,” he said.

Dr Ascencio-Lane said staff have gone to great lengths to keep the emergency department safe even after borders open, and encouraged people to seek treatment if they need it.

Private facilities mobilized to lighten the load

In Launceston, a private emergency care center was opened in March to give people whose lives are not in danger another place to go than the emergency department.

He has already turned many away from the hospital.

They expect demand to increase from December 15.

He said people can fear getting infected by going to LGH.

“So we expect there will be more demand here.”

Dr. Toby Gardner looks off camera.
Dr Toby Gardner prepares his team.(ABC News: Piia Wirsu)

Dr Gardner said private health practices also have COVID escalation plans.

“Everything is based on what is happening [in] the community, what is happening in our region, ”he said.

“We have plans for if any staff here gets COVID, [or] if we have patients arriving with COVID. ”

Dr Gardner hoped people would follow the correct channels if they contracted COVID, to keep staff and patients at other facilities safe.

Staff at the reception of the medical center.
Launceston Emergency Care Center has escalation plans in place based on what’s going on in the community. (ABC News: Michael Brooks)
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Heavily mutated Omicron variant puts scientist on alert

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