The critical medical lifelines that sustain rural and regional Queensland are set to be tested, with rescue crews bracing for what a COVID outbreak means in the bush.

Key points:

  • Royal Flying Doctors Service and LifeFlight are bracing for potential COVID-19 outbreaks in rural and remote Queensland
  • Aero-medical services are modelling how they can function if staff are infected at work, or at home
  • Royal Flying Doctors Service covers 1.73 million square kilometres of Queensland’s regional areas

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and the LifeFlight aeromedical rescue have already transported 88 suspected or confirmed COVID patients in Queensland since the pandemic began.

But with the state’s border rules set to relax in December, that number could skyrocket as the pandemic reaches rural areas for the first time.

Low vaccination rates, big risks

The RFDS is working to get ahead of the deadly disease, travelling to isolated communities to deliver and administer doses of the vaccines.

It is important work.

Australia has now passed the 80 per cent COVID-19 vaccination milestone but regional Queensland still has pockets where the vaccination rate is less than 60 per cent.

Light plane on dusty dirt runway

Royal Flying Doctor Service has been delivering and administering vaccines across the state.(Supplied: Royal Flying Doctor Service)

In figures released by the Commonwealth on Monday, outback Queensland has 53.2 per cent of its eligible population fully vaccinated, and 63.4 per cent with one dose.

Central Queensland, Bowen Basin, Mackay and the Whitsundays are at 57 per cent fully vaccinated, and almost 75 per cent with one dose.

That is on par with parts of outback Western Australia.

RFDS chief medical officer Katie Clift said she was worried about regions that were a long way from a major hospital.

“Vaccination will reduce disease severity but also the spread of the disease.”

Woman with long brown hair in black dress, smiling

Royal Flying Doctor Service chief medical officer Katie Clift is particularly concerned about areas with low vaccination rates.(Supplied: Royal Flying Doctor Service)

Both RFDS and LifeFlight crews in Queensland have had the advantage of time — observing how other states have grappled with the pandemic, the arrival of the Delta strain, and the need for fully vaccinated crews.

“We’ve been preparing for this for a long time — moving unwell patients is what we do.”

LifeFlight operates six fixed-wing planes and 10 helicopters across the state.

“Like all healthcare providers, LifeFlight Australia and its staff have a heightened awareness of the risks from COVID-19.”

Hospitals already under pressure

If dispatching a fully stocked flying emergency room to far flung areas was not enough of a challenge, there are still concerns that Queensland’s hospital system may struggle to keep up as patient numbers rise.

Public hospitals in Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Mount Isa all activated “code yellow” alarms simultaneously last month — a sign of the hospitals becoming overwhelmed.

James Cook University infectious diseases physician Emma McBryde told the ABC the systems could be “tested very strongly in the next few months”.

A Queensland Health spokesman said it was prepared for “Delta incursions” of COVID-19.

Across the state, the department has about 380 staffed intensive care beds, but that can expand to 570 if demand increases.

The hospitals share 1,355 ventilators, and more than 300 negative pressure rooms, which has increased since the pandemic.

A spokesman said not all COVID patients would need hospital care.

“We have the ability to provide care to patients who are well enough to be treated at home or other non-hospital settings.”

Bracing for the worst 

Dr Clift said the RFDS had detailed modelling on how it could function if its aeromedical team were infected. 

“We have got some strategies in place to model what it would look like if a proportion of our staff were unable to work for periods of time, and how we might keep the service operational.

“(It’s) our absolute priority to maintain to the areas that rely on RFDS for medical care and for aeromedical retrieval.”

Those areas are vast, spanning 1.73 million square kilometres with 20 aircraft that take-off from bases in Cairns, Townsville Mount Isa, Charleville, Longreach, Roma, Rockhampton, Bundaberg and Brisbane.

Using caravans to fight COVID

She said the RFDS was watching how New South Wales Health worked to treat isolated communities, particularly Indigenous residents who may be reluctant to be airlifted to a distant hospital, away from their family network.

“It’s a very bespoke solution for that community.

“They all stayed in the land that they want to stay in, yet they were managed in a safe way.”

She said while a convoy of caravans haven’t yet been organised they would “be absolutely part of the response”.

 Until the border restrictions relax on December 17, Dr Clift was now having to wait and see what unfolds.

“I feel we’re ready, we’re well prepared,” she said.

“But yeah, there is a little bit of a sense of anticipation and what might happen next.”

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Flying doctors on alert for looming COVID outbreak in the bush
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