System under strain
HEALTHCARE workers are bracing for a system under strain just as the doors to freedom begin to open across the state.
As an incredibly infectious virus creeps into the community, Tamworth GP Dr Ian Kamerman is "extremely worried"that the case count will rise rapidly, with 16 new infections in the past two days and the local vaccination rate at less than 70 per cent.
"I think this is just incredibly short-sighted that we seem to be taking our foot off the brake when numbers are increasing in our particular communities," he said on Friday.
It came after a further eight cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Tamworth, including two mystery infections, though there was no word of a lockdown.
Dr Kamerman said eventually something had to give.
"Unfortunately my concern is what will give will be the health system," he said.
"I think any increasing numbers will put a significant strain on the resources that are already under stress in regional areas."
Hillvue Public School has been deep cleaned and contact tracing is taking place.
Meanwhile, Carinya Christian School was on alert after it was confirmed a parent was infected with COVID-19.
"One expects that the disease will largely spread through the unvaccinated population, which will essentially be children ... and people who are not double vaccinated within the community," Dr Kamerman warned.
Tamworth's double dose vaccination rate is around 60 per cent, below the state-wide average of more than 70 per cent.
The case count has swelled from one new case on Monday and one new case on Wednesday, to eight new cases on Thursday and another eight on Friday.
At least some were active in the community and two have an unknown source of infection.
Dr Kamerman said if Tamworth opens along with the state on Monday as planned, he would expect the case count to rise exponentially.
"The cases aren't huge but they have the potential to be huge," he said.
"I just think the timing of this is incredibly bad for Tamworth."
He said the future appears so grim that a colleague in Dubbo - which has been hit by a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 - offered to send vaccine doses and staff to Tamworth to help vaccination efforts.
He said the city has enough doses and enough staff to get everyone jabbed, but the levels were not high enough yet.
In the regions, healthcare systems both public and private are already under strain, he said, and an increase in "exposures" to COVID-19 could see doctors, staff, nurses and pharmacy workers sidelined in isolation.
It's a fear that's shared among healthcare professionals across the state working in regional areas as they call out for more guidance, concerned about morale and what some say is a lack of clear communication.
Dr Rachel Christmas, a GP in the Riverina district, and vice president of the NSW Regional Doctors Association, said it "remains to be seen" what the government is going to do in terms of healthcare and opening up.
"In my view, we're better off doing this cautiously and lifting some restrictions gradually as we get more information and see how that affects cases," she said.
It's an apprehension shared by Scott Beaton, vice president of the Australian Paramedics Association and a paramedic working in Gilgandra, west of Dubbo.
"We plan for the worst and hope for the best," he said.
"There certainly is a level of apprehension because on the one hand, it'll be good for everyone to get back to some form of normality, but for paramedics I can just see our workload increasing."
Health teams assessing the situation
TAMWORTH MP Kevin Anderson has backed his government's decisions based on health advice and claims he has "full confidence" the local healthcare system can cope.
He told the Leader that Tamworth's double dose vaccination rate had inched over 60 per cent on Friday, and was projected to hit 70 per cent by Wednesday.
He said the increase in cases on Thursday and Friday was a "real concern" to him but that health teams were carefully monitoring the situation and were contact tracing and doing risk assessments.
He said NSW Health and an expert team would provide advice on any further steps, taking in a range of factors. He said he had been in contact with health authorities on Friday.
When questioned about the COVID-19 roadmap updates announced by Premier Dominic Perrottet, Mr Anderson categorically denied any implication that politics could get in the way of health advice, and said it was "business as usual".
Health Minster Brad Hazzard's office was contacted for comment but referred the Leader to NSW Health and Hunter New England Health (HNEH).
NSW Health said in a statement that an expert panel considered a range of factors before issuing any advice to the government.
"The presence of a case in area without stay-at-home orders does not mean NSW Health will automatically advise the reintroduction of stay-at-home orders, as the specifics of each case must be assessed with respect to the potential risk to the community," the statement said.
"NSW Health always takes a precautionary approach to ensure we stop the spread of COVID-19 in our regional and rural communities."
Hospitals working together to cope
HEALTH AUTHORITIES have assured locals that a "pandemic plan" is in place at hospitals across the health district to deal with demand.
HNEH medical controller Dr Paul Craven said hospitals in the district work together to make sure patients are cared for.
"We are also supported by our networked hospital system which ensures patients can be transferred or redirected to other hospitals where necessary," he said.
"Our facilities also have suitable clinical spaces to appropriately care for patients with COVID-19, and our larger hospitals have identified surge capacity to accommodate larger patient numbers in wards, ICU, the emergency department and those being cared for at home."
He said HNEH staff are trained in the management of COVID-19 and he is proud of the way staff have handled the evolving situation.
- with Maeve Bannister
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