Patient lives are being put in danger while waiting in hospital corridors for up to 24 hours and a top doctor says the Covid-19 pandemic is making the looming healthcare crisis worse.
Emergency doctor John Bonning said urgent-care delays were already severe but Omicron had been "the straw that's broken the camel's back".
"Covid is an added complication but it's not the cause of the problem and this has been predictable, so it's a manifestation of an underfunded health system," Bonning told the Herald yesterday.
He pointed to Australasian College for Emergency Medicine research showing that if more than 10 per cent of patients were waiting longer than eight hours for care they had a 10 per cent greater chance of dying.
The evidence showed harm and patient death occurred when there were severe delays for care, he said.
His comments come after health chief Dr Ashley Bloomfield yesterday said that there was no crisis in the health sector — despite hospitals grappling with growing Covid admissions.
But when pressed on whether the health system was really under stress, Bloomfield told Newstalk ZB to go and talk to the staff in hospitals who were feeling the pressure every day.
Auckland's hospitals were being hit hard, with 15 to 20 per cent of the workforce out of action, the director general of health said. "That creates a lot of pressure."
The nation's largest senior doctors union, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists Toi Mata Hauora (ASMS), pushed back, saying it would strongly reject any claims that the health system was not in a crisis.
"Covid hospitalisations are escalating, routine patient care is being postponed or cancelled, clerical and managerial staff are being asked to help out on the wards, and some staff are being offered special allowances to work extra shifts," ASMS executive director Sarah Dalton told the Herald.
As of yesterday, 930 people were fighting the virus in hospital, with 23 in intensive care. A further 10 Covid-related deaths were also reported — taking the total of Covid-related fatalities since the start of the pandemic to 151.
Of those in hospital, 618 were in Auckland. One-third of admissions in the northern region clearly had Covid as their reason for treatment, said the chief clinical officer of the Northern Region Health Co-ordination Centre, Dr Andrew Old.
Bonning — who works at Waikato Hospital's emergency department — said the staffing crisis had been made worse with a significant number of nurses resigning for less stressful jobs in general practices, managed isolation, swabbing centres or overseas.
"Nurses going to Australia is really, really common because they get paid a lot more," he said.
Inability to recruit overseas nurses into the country in the past two years was adding fuel to the fire, Bonning said, because hospitals were usually reliant on that. "Not to mention current isolation protocols which meant staff that were exposed to Covid, which was extremely common, could be off work for several days."
Yesterday, the Herald reported Auckland midwives and nurses being offered a $500 bonus for every night shift worked to help hospitals combat the severe staffing shortages.
Middlemore Hospital's emergency department clinical director, Dr Vanessa Thornton, said they were considering extending the bonuses while watching Covid positivity rates among staff.
"We need to fill the outer-hour shifts so I think [the bonuses] are useful, but it doesn't solve the whole problem because it's also a 24-hour day and we need staff at all times.
"The nights are just less popular, as you can imagine," Thornton said.
Meanwhile, Bonning said patients were waiting up to 24 hours to be admitted, nurses were caring for 10 patients at a time and they were seeing unprecedented ambulance ramping, meaning paramedics were being told to keep patients in ambulances because hospitals were too busy.
"The numbers overall have dropped ever so slightly but we are expecting them to go back up fairly shortly, just like housing prices dip then shoot back up," Bonning said.
General practices were also struggling with the demand.
The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners medical director, Dr Bryan Betty, said some GPs were working seven-day weeks and long hours to keep up.
A backlog was building for "business as usual care" such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and mental health as the focus stayed on Covid.
"Immunisation rates had dropped to about 70 per cent coverage for 6-month-olds, we have seen a backlog of 50,000 cervical smears and we know there is a massive backlog of routine appointments that are being squeezed due to a capacity issue," Betty said.
Yesterday, the college released a report showing 50 per cent of GPs were indicating they were going to retire by 2030.
"We are seeing shortages of GPs around the country — Invercargill, Northland, Hastings, South Auckland and lots of rural towns — and it's causing real stress in the system and the ability for patients to get access to care."