Ballarat authorities say they’re in a good position to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak in the city but smaller regional health services worry they’ll be quickly overrun.
- Ballarat authorities say locals should have confidence in their response to the COVID outbreak
- The regional city is in its eighth lockdown, with 11 cases detected by Saturday
- Portland health service is bracing for an outbreak it fears could devastate the southwest community
Eleven cases and dozens of exposure sites have been reported in Ballarat, the western Victorian regional city’s first real test with the Delta variant.
Of 15 new cases in regional Victoria yesterday, two were in Ballarat and one in neighbouring Moorabool Shire, four in Geelong, five in Mitchell Shire in central Victoria, two in the Macedon Ranges, and one in Bass Coast.
Health officials in smaller towns in the state’s west are looking on nervously and urging locals to get vaccinated, saying it’s a matter of time before the Delta variant arrives after outbreaks in Ballarat and Shepparton.
But Ballarat Health Services (BHS) acting CEO Melanie Robertson said the organisation was working well with the state government to contain the outbreak.
“It’s an incredibly strong team, we know what we are doing, we’ve taken learnings from all around the state,” she said.
“It’s incredibly effective and efficient machinery that is running 24/7 at the moment to protect our community, with everyone absolutely dedicated to that.”
Enough staff despite exposure
By Friday, about 100 BHS staff who had been to exposure sites were furloughed, while a further 30 health care workers from St John of God, a private hospital, were in the same situation.
But Ms Robertson said they still could still maintain their usual health services for the community.
“We continue to plan for this and we have the strength in our plans to ensure continuity of services,” she said.
“It is still very, very safe to attend health care in Ballarat and get the health care that you need.”
She said BHS and the state government were trying to get medical workers who had been to tier 2 sites rapidly tested and back to work.
“We’ve got significant furloughed staff at the moment,” she said.
“We know that we need those staff to provide the health care necessary for our community.”
Smaller towns would face ‘real strife’
But Claire Holt from Portland District Health, responsible for the care of about 12,000 people in Victoria’s far southwest, said a similar outbreak there would cause “real strife”, reducing the number of available hospital beds, halting elective surgery and possibly closing outpatient services.
“We would need to be sending patients elsewhere,” she said.
“We wouldn’t necessarily let patients become inpatients here at Portland, because we wouldn’t be able to care for them.
“Essentially, if we had to furlough a significant portion of our staff, we would be in real strife.”
There are no ICU beds in Portland and there’s already a shortage of staff.
COVID patients likely to be transferred
Most patients who are sick with COVID would most likely be sent to Geelong.
Ms Holt said it would be difficult to call on staff from other health services because that would mean “taking them out of jobs in other places in the state”.
“If they’re partly backfilling here and still required to work in their other job then that risks potentially transferring COVID between health services, which is the last thing we want to do,” she said.
“If we had replacement staff come down here, then they would have to be here for the duration of the furlough.”
‘Just enough size’
Mark Harris, Director of St John of God’s emergency department in Ballarat and a councillor involved in pandemic preparation, said the city was “just” big enough to cope with an outbreak and not be as badly affected as smaller communities.
“If you have your one supermarket taken out, and your one health service taken out because there’s been a staff furlough from a lunchroom or something, that can be locally catastrophic,” he said.
“Ballarat has got probably, in some respects, just enough size that you don’t get that sort of effect happening.”
He said it was unlikely Ballarat would need as much support as Shepparton did during its outbreak because it had double the population and more resources.
But Mr Harris said he was worried about the months ahead because, like many regional healthcare systems, it was stretched even before the outbreak.
“I’ve got some trepidation,” he said.
Meanwhile, Claire Holt said Portland Health was trying to vaccinate as many people as possible before the virus arrived.
“I think we’d be naive in saying that COVID is never going to get here,” she said.
“That’s ridiculous. COVID’s here to stay.”
More than 75 per cent of eligible people in the shire of Glenelg, which includes Portland, have received at least one dose of a vaccine — higher than the state average.
She said there was high demand because locals know the potential effect of an outbreak, including deaths.
“If there is a percentage of the population that is still not vaccinated, for whatever reasons, and the Delta variant arrives in Portland, they will get it and there will be a significant impact on those people,” Ms Holt said.
“And we would all know them.
“That’s the thing with a small community.”
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