Australia has had its deadliest day since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with 77 fatalities in the latest reporting period.
It came as Victoria declared an unprecedented “code brown” emergency in its hospitals and the NSW premier was forced to defend his approach to the surging virus load.
Queensland’s Health Minister issued a broadside at Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the federal government as her state’s COVID toll also hit a record and it tightened some virus rules on Tuesday.
Yvette D’Ath was furious at Commonwealth-run ads promoting free rapid tests at public clinics – even though test supplies are yet to arrive in the state.
“I think those ads are very self-serving. They are highly political, and it’s about mostly positioning himself to look good in the lead-up to an election,” Ms D’Ath said of Mr Morrison.
“It is not Scott Morrison who is standing there at these testing clinics having to deal with the abuse of people who are unhappy because they can’t get up for a test and to run these ads now.”
Queensland had 16 more virus deaths on Tuesday, by far its highest single-day toll since the pandemic began.
Ms D’Ath said just one of the 45 people who have died with COVID-19 in Queensland since December 13 had received a third jab.
NSW also reported record deaths, with 36. There were a further 22 COVID fatalities in Victoria, two in South Australia and another in the ACT.
The previous one-day high for COVID-related deaths nationally was on January 13, when 57 were reported.
The virus has now claimed 921 lives in NSW, an increase of 165 in a week.
But Premier Dominic Perrottet said the state had to push through. He conceded NSW’s health system was under pressure but defended the current path as a “hard but right” road.
“We have to get on with life,” he told the ABC on Tuesday.
Mr Perrottet said rapid tests will be crucial to the state government’s strategy to get kids back to school for term one from January 28, despite the worsening COVID situation.
“That’s why we procured here in NSW tens of millions of them,” he said.
Tests will be available for “frontline service delivery”, including students and teachers.
More details are expected after Thursday’s national cabinet meeting.
Only about 11 per cent of children aged five to 11 in NSW have so far received a vaccine dose.
Under a plan reportedly being considered by NSW, students would be asked to take RATs at home twice a week.
With about 1.2 million school students in NSW, the plan would mean using about 24 million of the hard-to-find kits in a 10-week term, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.
Meanwhile, independent schools have reportedly been told to ask parents to supervise students amid fears up to 20 per cent of staff could be absent at any one time.
Victorian hospitals under ‘extreme pressure’
Victoria has declared an unprecedented system-wide code brown emergency across all its Melbourne hospitals and six in the regions as it buckles under COVID-19 pressures.
Acting Health Minister James Merlino announced the measure will start at midday on Wednesday and last for four to six weeks.
The state’s COVID hospitalisations are expected to peak at some time in February.
The order means each hospital will be able to postpone or defer less urgent care, while some staff may be reassigned or recalled from leave.
Mr Merlino said Victoria’s hospital system was under “extreme pressure” from staff shortages, with more than 4000 healthcare workers isolating after either testing positive for COVID-19 or as close contacts.
He said it was the right time to trigger the code brown as the system juggled severe workforce shortages and rising COVID patient numbers.
“We’ve always known that this would be the case,” he said on Tuesday.
“That as we move away from lockdowns and remote learning there will be a strain on our hospital system, and we are seeing that play out with significant numbers via the Omicron wave.”
Mr Merlino said hospitalisations in NSW, where the Omicron outbreak is a couple of weeks ahead of Victoria, were rising by about 100 people a day.
If that was replicated, he said, Victoria could soon hit more than 2500 hospitalisations.
The code brown applies to all metropolitan Melbourne public hospitals, as well as Geelong’s Barwon Health, Grampians Health in Ballarat, Bendigo Health, Goulburn Valley Health in Shepparton, Albury Wodonga Health and Latrobe Regional Hospital.
Never before has a code brown of this scale been declared across the Victorian health system. They are usually reserved for short-term emergencies, such as the Black Saturday bushfires and deadly 2016 thunderstorm asthma event.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the private hospitals agreement would be activated across Australia in response to the growing COVID numbers. It will mean up to 57,000 nurses and more than 100,000 staff become available to Omicron-hit areas.
“We have strong confidence in the Victorian hospital system and strong confidence in its preparedness that there is significant capacity within the system but, of course, workforce challenges – not just in hospitals, but in workplaces in any Omicron-affected area – remain the principal challenge. So this is a response to that,” he said.
Royal Melbourne Hospital emergency boss Susan Hardy said the hospital supported the declaration to safeguard its stretched resources.
While many Victorians needed urgent care, a patient last week faked chest pains when calling an ambulance and was rushed to a resuscitation unit, where they revealed they just wanted a PCR test.
“That is an unbelievable misuse of resources,” she said.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation said the government-backed code brown was an acknowledgement of its workforce’s serious concerns.
Victoria had 20,180 cases and 22 deaths on Tuesday, as the number of patients in hospital with COVID-19 fell by 77 to 1152.
It was the second consecutive day case numbers had declined in the state.
The number of people in ICU also fell by two to 127, though 43 people are now on ventilation, an increase of five.
– with AAP