Southern hospitals were in desperate straits last night, as staff from all disciplines were reassigned from their usual duties to treat sick patients.
Dunedin Hospital was over capacity and its intensive care and Covid-19 wards were at capacity, while several rural hospitals were battling to find staff to fill medical and nursing rosters.
Staff were yesterday advised all training and education work was to be deferred, and all "available and appropriately qualified" staff were being asked to do clinical duties rather than their usual roles.
The Otago Daily Times understands all hospitals in Otago and Southland are struggling to manage with a high number of patients, while also coping with staff absent either through seasonal ailments or due to Covid-19 requirements.
"Staff are really under the pump and it's all hands on deck," a hospital employee who asked not to be named said.
"People are working incredibly hard but it's a nearly insurmountable strain that they are under."
It is understood that Dunedin Hospital has been close to its highest alert level, Code Black, in recent days, but that it and Southland Hospital have been obliged to take patients which rural hospitals do not have the staff to treat.
Te Whatu Ora Southern (the former Southern District Health Board) interim district director Hamish Brown said that Dunedin and Southland Hospitals were both running at high capacity.
"This situation has been exacerbated due to high levels of staff illness across all hospitals, including rural hospitals," he said.
"All hospitals are affected and in the last 24 hours we have implemented measures to safely manage increased inpatient numbers and staff illness.
"Safe patient care remains our No 1 priority."
Brown said the city hospitals were taking patients to help out their rural counterparts, which placed additional pressure on capacity at Dunedin and Southland Hospitals.
"Staff across disciplines are also being redeployed to other areas of the health system where their skills, expertise and clinical abilities are in need.
"Staff have also been advised that there may be the need to defer outpatient clinics and postpone deferrable admissions/surgery and inter-hospital transfers," Brown said.
Patients are also being regularly reassessed to see if they can be discharged to make room for other acute cases, and it is understood that staff have also been asked to work overtime, double shifts, or to return from leave.
Yesterday southern hospitals were also caring for 33 people who had Covid-19, a caseload which meant that the designated pandemic wards were full.
Two of those patients were in intensive care.
It is understood that hospital managers are seriously concerned that the surge in the number of Covid-19 cases in the region in recent days will soon be reflected in hospitalisation numbers, raising questions whether the Covid wards will be able to cope with demand.
Primary health and aged residential care are experiencing similar pressures due to staff shortages and illness.
Yesterday the Ministry of Health reported 849 new cases of Covid-19 in Otago and Southland, following 847 new cases on Wednesday, heights not recorded since May when the initial Omicron wave was starting to tail off.
Nationally, 10,710 new cases were reported and 15 deaths, none of which were in the South.
The national seven-day rolling average for Covid-19 hospitalisations was 474: a week ago it was 363.
Brown said inpatients were being reviewed twice daily by senior doctors and discharged when it was clinically safe, and in the patient's best interests, to do so.
"We ask all members of the public to be kind and considerate to all healthcare staff at this time who are doing an outstanding job under extraordinarily difficult circumstances."