Jan 21, 2022

Clear sign of significant distress: Victorian nurses ask for the military to be deployed

Nurses ask to deploy military

Following on from the state government issuing a Code Brown emergency this week, the Victorian nurses’ union has been insistent that hospitals need immediate military aid to ensure running sustainably. 

Deputy Premier James Merlino explained the Code Brown declaration was warranted so as to assist hospitals as they attempt to manage with admission numbers now setting records. 

He said, “We have reached a point in our healthcare system where it’s juggling extreme workforce shortages alongside a vast number of patients with COVID-19 who require hospitalisation.”

“Alongside that is an extraordinary [health] workforce that [is] absolutely exhausted,” he added.

A new event, this is the first time a statewide Code Brown – which is to be active from 12pm on January 19 – has been issued in Victoria covering all major hospitals. 

The Code Brown status allows for hospital staff to be asked to postpone leave and possible work in differing roles as need arises. Non-urgent clinical services are also allowed to be stopped or significantly reduced.

Hearing from within hospital and emergency services, the situation is very difficult – many are at breaking point, with numerous medical wards operating far under appropriate staffing levels due to coronavirus exposure numbers and isolation mandates. 

The numbers are stark. As of January 18, over 4,000 Victorian public healthcare workers were prevented from working due to being exposed or having tested positive to COVID-19.

As reported by The Age, the Code Brown declaration – a sweeping status that covers all metropolitan hospitals, including six regional – permits hospitals to void workers’ leave and shuffle any staff to priority areas. 

Assistant secretary at the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s Victorian branch, Paul Gilbert, said the declaration falls far short of what is needed, calling on the federal government to immediately deploy military support. 

Many senior medical personnel have spoken out about conditions in Melbourne’s hospitals, saying they are at the worst they have ever experienced, with standards of care unattainable as nurse-to-patient ratios are impossible to maintain. 

Gilbert goes on to explain that military-trained healthcare personnel would be able to care for the expected wave of Victorians modelled to begin arriving at emergency wards in the forthcoming weeks. With their skills and training they could “hit the ground running” and make a huge difference. 

Projections as modelled by the Victorian government are showing a potential significant spike in admissions in February, with the possibility of 100 COVID patients being received each day. 

As staff are shuffled around in an attempt to plug large gaps left by isolating or recovering staff, some wards are being heavily impacted. 

Buckling maternity hospitals are pleading with local councils to allow for their skilled maternal child healthcare workers to be returned, to help with severe shortages in maternity units. These wards are being significantly challenged by high numbers of pregnant women being admitted with coronavirus. 

Mr Gilbert described the maternity units at Western and Monash Health as being “absolutely pummelled”, the added complication of caring for pregnancy and coronavirus, alongside huge staffing shortages are too much to bear. 

Omar Khorshid, Australian Medical Association (AM) national president, conveyed that the enactment of Code Brown in Victoria displays a failure of the national policy governing healthcare. 

Continuing he added, “Having to turn people away when they are there for a legitimate reason is really not good enough for our system.”

The Code Brown enactment was issued after Australia hit 77 deaths from COVID on January 18, the highest number since the onset of the pandemic.

It’s important to note that in this case of Code Brown, it will be active for four to six weeks, differing from the usual day or two in the case of a natural disaster or train crash.

Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, described the still “enormous capacity” not being utilised from the private sector, when quizzed about the need for military intervention. 

He outlined the government had enacted again its private hospitals agreement, struck initially in early 2020, that allows for private hospitals to ease the caseloads from public hospitals who were bearing the brunt of the state’s COVID patients. 

The Defence Minister has been approached for comment regarding the possibility of military deployment of personnel in hospitals in Victoria. 

Advocates in and out of the medical sector are adamant the true impact of the Code Brown will mean complications for Victorians seeking medical attention. 

While the measure is designed to discourage persons from arriving at the emergency department when they could be recovering at home, a step amongst rising reports of VIctorians arriving at hospitals with mild COVID symptoms or seeking a test, still others are waiting for needed surgeries. 

Doctors are warning the decisions about who to admit will get harder, certainly when there may be diagnostic confusion, meaning troubling and difficult calls will have to be made. 

Rockbank resident, Feda Hassan, described the heartbreak of having to see her dad’s health and quality of life deteriorate as he waited for surgery following being diagnosed with stenosis. 

The category two surgery was meant to go ahead last September but was called off with two days’ notice. Now she and her father wonder if the surgery will ever go ahead. 

The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine stated the Code Brown would allow for hospitals to utilise a range of critical tools for meeting the unprecedented difficulties of the next month. 

In a statement addressing the concern around being able to receive treatment, they stressed that persons going through a medical emergency would still be prioritised, admitted and receive care.

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  1. It’s an absolute disgrace my 6 month pregnant daughter who nurses at a major Melbourne trauma hospital finishes each shift absolutely exhausted and in tears. Meanwhile the politicians are sitting back in comfort patting themselves on the back and awarding themselves pay rises. 🤬

  2. Hunt can talk about the “enormous capacity” of the private hospital system but the fact is that Nurses are not interchangeable parts in some kind of massive machine. It takes time to familiarise and orientate yourself to a new workplace. You cannot just go through a checklist with the Nurse prior to the shift. The golden rule is do no harm. Flexibility is fine if it is done properly but you don’t want to be providing unsafe care just because you were unable to provide safe nursing work. Military assistance is a good idea simply because the health system is going into uncharted territory and right now anything could happen. ScoMo’s COVID policy is a shambles. The system needs leadership. Opening schools without a proper plan and adequate resources is a bad idea. Almost two thousand children have died in the US thanks to their insane neo-liberal I’m all right Jack bugger you policies. ‘Let it rip’ may work for the elites but it won’t work for the vulnerable who are four times as likely to get COVID and die.

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