The Queensland hospital system was already “stressed” before the latest Covid outbreak partly because everyone with the virus is moved from hotel quarantine into hospital, but not all hospital workers have been vaccinated yet, experts say.
There are now two separate clusters of the infectious UK variant of coronavirus in Brisbane that spread when unvaccinated health workers contracted the virus. The cases have forced Brisbane into a snap three-day lockdown.
The director of infectious diseases at Mater Health Services, Associate Prof Paul Griffin, says the vaccine has been given to people who could have waited – leaving high-risk health workers exposed.
Even before the most recent outbreak, hospitals in Queensland were stretched, Griffin told Guardian Australia.
“Obviously these [Covid] patients take a lot of effort in terms of managing them in a safe way so I think it has certainly put strain on the healthcare system,” he said. “It’s a very significant event we have found ourselves in, and it has got us all working flat out again, that’s for sure.”
Griffin said he supported the three-day lockdown so that contact tracers could catch up and health authorities could better prepare for what’s to come. He also welcomed increased efforts to vaccinate high-risk healthcare workers.
But he questioned why those workers had not been vaccinated sooner. Griffin received his vaccine two weeks ago, however, many of his hospital colleagues were still waiting for their jabs while treating infectious patients.
“Obviously there are reactive measures like lockdown to reduce transmission that are a priority at the moment, but we need to not lose sight of the goal of getting that vaccine rolled out as quickly as possible,” he said.
“We just don’t have the vaccine coverage yet to move away from measures like lockdown. [The vaccine rollout to health workers] is now increasing but I still don’t feel that it’s sufficient. We have a very clearly structured prioritisation system. But for all the logistical reasons, we haven’t necessarily been rolling the vaccine out in such a prioritised way.
“There are a lot of people vaccinated who perhaps could have waited a little bit. I really think all the health workers who are potentially going to be directly in contact with positive patients should be vaccinated by now. We’re not quite there. There’s a commitment now to make sure that’s the case and I welcome that.”
Griffin said because positive cases had been moved out of hotel quarantine the hospital system should be a higher priority for vaccination. But issues with booking vaccines, supply shortages and the busy schedule of health professionals meant it had not been easy for those caring for positive patients to receive a vaccination.
“It’s challenging for people in high priority roles to take time away from clinical duties and step away from their job to get a vaccine, and booking ahead and communicating availability has been a challenge for people in integral roles,” he said. “There are still people working in hospitals in that 1a category definitely still waiting that that I’m aware of.”
The fact that the clusters involved a more infectious variant of the virus first identified in the UK “was not the sole reason we find ourselves in this situation”, he said, adding that the ways of stopping transmission remained the same no matter the strain.
“Certainly we’ve seen a lot of cases in people in the quarantine system from Papua New Guinea, where there is an exponential growth of cases, and so a significant number of those cases have made their way into our system, which increases the probability for transmission.
“This variant is more infectious, and I think that’s clear, but you don’t want to place too much emphasis on that. It’s still transmitted the same way.”
Griffin said it was too early to say whether the lockdown would be effective.
“That will really become apparent in the next day or two,” he said. “Hopefully tomorrow we might see the cases plateau or reduce, and then the next day, if we have very few cases we can say the lockdown worked. But if that’s not the case, and there are still new cases arising in the next two days, the potential for lockdown to extend will be very significant.”
Associate Prof Linda Selvey, from the school of public health at the University of Queensland’s medicine faculty, said it was essential that Queenslanders continued to get tested.
“The next couple of days are really very important,” she said. “The incubation period of the virus is quite variable. So, it may be there are still cases incubating. The main thing is just to reinforce the importance testing. Even if people have the slightest symptoms of a cough or cold they should present for testing and isolate at home until they receive a negative result.”