Hutt Hospital faces an influx of Covid patients due to staff shortages

Up to one in three patients who come through the Hutt Hospital emergency department have Covid-19.

By Ruth Hill of

Emergency doctor Tanya Wilton said admission records showed 20-30% of patients this week had tested positive.

At the same time as it was dealing with this large influx of Covid patients, the ED had to scramble to fill in the gaps in the list.

“It goes through the emergency department of reception staff, security staff, nursing staff, health assistants, junior doctors, senior doctors and then allied health services as well as radiographers and laboratory technicians, as well as paramedics. So it’s prevalent.”

Around 800 doctors and nurses from Wellington’s three hospitals have been sick or in isolation this week, almost 15% of clinical staff.

With the Omicron outbreak yet to peak, frontline health workers are warning that slowing the spread is more critical than ever.

Wilton said around two-thirds of Covid-19 patients visit the emergency room because of their coronavirus symptoms, while others seek treatment for unrelated issues – including broken ankles, headaches back, strokes or seizures – and were otherwise tested positive.

“Interestingly, a small proportion are refusing to get tested for Covid, so there’s that to deal with as well.”

Staff were working extra shifts and longer hours, she said.

“I’m really lucky to work with a group of really dedicated people. I’m amazed at how deep they can dig. But I think people are really tired.”

Morale has also been affected by the stalemate in contract negotiations, including the zero per cent salary offer to senior doctors by DHBs last year, she said.

“Comments from the DHB bargaining team that health care workers should have their ‘year of pain’ were not particularly helpful.

“Nurses also want to see progress in their demand for safe staffing levels. It would really show that we are valued.”

A head nurse, speaking anonymously, said Wellington Hospital was already understaffed before the pandemic, but the situation had gotten much worse.

“Nurses tend to want to take care of each other, so they’ll come over if they’re not feeling particularly well just to make sure their colleagues aren’t really short-staffed.

“There are constant texts sent to staff members to come help or stay late – and this kind of behavior is now the norm rather than a rarity. It becomes a risk for staff.”

One department had lost 50 out of 120 nurses in the past two years – and more would leave now that international borders were opening, she said.

Critical care specialist Andrew Stapleton, who is based at Hutt Hospital, said GP clinics and emergency departments were currently bearing the brunt of the outbreak.

“We are alarmed by the rapid increase in case numbers and therefore the number of hospitals increasing around a week later – and I suspect that these numbers are increasing faster than the modeling suggests.

“So we are nervously waiting to see what happens – because there is always a lag between the number of cases and hospitalizations, and another lag between hospitalizations and intensive care.”

As the pandemic increases, Stapleton fears the number of people requiring hospital care will overwhelm the system at some point.

“Even though Omicron overall is not such a dangerous disease, other patients with other medical conditions are missing because the hospital is so full of these other patients.”

DHB Capital and Coast and Hutt Chief Medical Officer John Tait was unavailable for an interview.

In a statement, he said some planned surgeries and specialist appointments may have to be postponed.

“The postponement will only take place if it is clinically safe and appropriate, and in discussion with patients. We are working closely with the private sector and will continue to do so.”

RNZ asked how many operations had already been postponed, but was told to file a request for official information.

As of midnight on Wednesday, there were just under 27,000 active Covid cases reported in the region – 65 of them in hospital.

Te Pūnaha Matatini’s modeling shows the greater Wellington area is on track to reach between 40,000 and 55,000 cases by the end of April, with between 85 and 130 people hospitalized at the peak.

The total number of infections will be higher, but not everyone will be tested.

Lillian L. Pena