Western Australia’s capacity to handle a COVID-19 outbreak is being questioned as the state again postpones hundreds of elective surgeries.
The month-long freeze, which will apply to non-urgent, multiday category two and three procedures, comes amid overcrowding and staff shortages in the state’s public hospitals.
It is the third time during the pandemic that WA has been forced to postpone some elective surgeries despite having a negligible virus caseload.
Australian Medical Association WA president Mark Duncan-Smith has warned the health system will struggle if there is a significant outbreak.
He has pointed the finger at the McGowan government for not investing sufficiently in hospital capacity.
“The level of water has been rising steadily, and now the system is drowning,” he told Perth radio 6PR on Monday.
Several of Perth’s tertiary hospitals have issued “code yellow” alerts in recent months, signalling their emergency departments have exceeded capacity.
Elsewhere, employees at Perth Children’s Hospital and King Edward Memorial Hospital have held rallies to protest staff shortages and working conditions.
Premier Mark McGowan criticised the doctors’ union, saying hospitals in every state were experiencing significant demand.
“They should stop scaremongering,” he said.
“All I’d say is we have a great health system by world standards but it’s under pressure.
“If we did have an outbreak, which we’re doing everything we can to prevent that, you take further measures, which is what NSW has done.”
WA’s health department has indicated hospitals have had a spike in cases of the metapneumovirus respiratory illness. Mr McGowan said this had led to some staff getting sick and staying home in accordance with health protocols.
He said there were also hundreds of patients occupying WA hospital beds who should be managed by the NDIS or in aged care.
The government has promised to open 332 hospital beds as part of an additional $1.9 billion health investment in next month’s state budget.
Health Minister Roger Cook has also outlined incentives to lure hospital workers from interstate and overseas, as well as refresher courses for experienced nurses and midwives and plans to take on more student graduates.
“We’ll need to play catch up at some point in time. That’s something we’ve done before when we’ve had to cancel or reschedule elective surgeries,” he said.
“In an outbreak, very few people go to the ED as well so that creates another disruption to the system.”
Figures published by St John Ambulance reveal ambulances have spent more than 6000 hours parked outside hospitals waiting to admit patients this month.
It is almost a tenfold increase from when the Labor government was elected in 2017.
There were almost 30,000 people on the waitlist for elective surgery at public hospitals as of May, according to data published by the health department.