NSW shadow health minister Ryan Park is demanding the state government provide a detailed plan on how it intends to staff regional hospitals as they brace for a spike in COVID-19 hospitalisations and ICU admissions.
Mr Park said regional and rural health services had long been struggling with a chronic shortage of nursing staff, with patients facing extended ED and surgery wait times even before the pandemic.
He is demanding the government reassure health care workers and communities by outlining in detail how they intend to staff regional hospitals leading up to the states reopening some time in October.
"We have very, very grave concerns for those [rural and regional] hospitals and their ability to be able to get through the next few weeks and months ahead," Mr Park said.
"The community has a right to know and they need to have confidence that their local health system when it is stretched ... will be able to cut it."
With the Premier Gladys Berejiklian releasing modelling done by health experts showing an ICU surge capacity of 1550 beds, Mr Park expressed concerns over how the government actually planned to staff these extra beds.
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Deputy Premier John Barilaro confirmed the modelling numbers took the regions into account in a press conference for regional journalists on September 6.
"The big challenge is not only physically having the number of beds. The challenge is also, can you get the staff," Mr Park said.
Submissions put forward to an ongoing NSW parliamentary inquiry into health outcomes and access to health and hospital services in rural, regional and remote NSW paints a picture of a health system already struggling to keep up with demand.
Mr Park's concerns stem from the stories coming out of the inquiry, which he said illustrated a "damning" picture of an already chronically ill system, even before the pandemic.
Included in these submissions is the story of a woman who travelled 140km with a twisted bowel. She was forced to wait hours for a CT scan in the Central West.
And a man, whose cancer had spread to his brain, was unable to have an MRI at his local hospital in the Southern Highlands.
The stark reality is that vaccination rates in the regions are simply too low at the moment.Ryan Park
Mr Barilaro has expressed confidence that the regional hospitals are prepared for the state's reopening and said that vaccination was key to easing pressure on health systems.
"I just want to make sure that there isn't a fear around the health system collapsing," Mr Barilaro said.
"What we know is even a first dose vaccination helps people from getting very unwell to the point of hospitalization, double dose, particularly further.
"I am very comfortable with the work being done in preparing the regions."
However, Mr Park said the testimony given at the inquiry should be a cause for alarm and that vaccination rates in the regions were "simply too low".
"If the deputy premier had bothered to have a look at the challenges that have surfaced in the inquiry, where people independent of political parties have presented evidence that paints a very bleak outlook on the state of regional and rural hospitals ... then I'm not sure his approach would be comfortable," he said.
"And the stark reality is that vaccination rates in the regions are simply too low at the moment.
"We're seeing vaccination levels very high in South West and Western Sydney and that's great.
"But the problem with Delta-variant is it doesn't run the same borders, and it can very quickly move into areas where there is low vaccination levels and in regional and rural New South Wales.
"This is something we need to address because it will become a real challenge for regional health systems."
Mr Park expressed particular concern over staffing and wait times in hospitals across Western NSW, the far South Coast and the South Coast.
He cited recent Bureau of Health Information Health Quarterly reports that showed wait times for ED and surgery wait times for public hospitals across the state for the April to June quarter.
"The reports show some real challenges across all hospitals in NSW," Mr Park said.
"And what we know is that emergency departments were already under the pump. For instance, at the Shoalhaven Hospital, 42 per cent of patients are now spending over four hours in the ED.
"We know that 60 per cent of patients started their treatments on time. We're getting more and more increases in the number of people who are waiting in the back of ambulances before they're being moved into a hospital facility.
"This was in the period well before the pandemic hit. That's why we're very, very concerned.
"And that's why we want the government to outline particularly how they plan to staff these Emergency Departments and ICUs when the peak of the hospitalisations is yet to be experienced."
In an effort to address an impending increase in hospitalisations, NSW Health has launched a recruitment campaign to bolster its pandemic response.
They are advertising to attract frontline health professionals who have retired or are now working in another sector, back to the workforce.
If there were major concerns [about staffing], they certainly haven't been raised with me.Brad Hazzard
It has not been confirmed whether these staff will be directed to rural and regional hospitals. Mr Hazzard and NSW Health were contacted for further comment.
Asked whether he left it too late to put in additional staffing on the front line, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard assured hospitals would be staffed adequately.
"Last year there were 9000 people who put themselves forward and can be called upon from time to time," he said in Thursday's 11am COVID-19 press conference.
"We've been saying now for months there is a lot of work being done by health teams on plans for the next year and a half.
"They have put together a strategy that ensures more than adequate staffing arrangements.
"We shouldn't diminish the fact the hospital system is under pressure, as you'd expect because we're in the middle of a pandemic.
"The planning has been done, the clinicians are available, the systems are in place.
"If there were major concerns [about staffing], they certainly haven't been raised with me," Mr Hazzard said.
However, Mr Park said he had written to Mr Hazzard last weekend over this very issue.
"I wrote to the NSW Health Minister making it very clear that the government needed to be upfront with how they were going to staff additional beds should the ICU demand be as great as what the Burnett Institute and other modelers have predicted for the next few weeks," said Mr Park.
"Because what we do know is frontline staff are already under enormous pressure.
"They're burnt out and are working under very, very challenging conditions.
"And we haven't seen the worst of the pandemic in terms of the overall hospitalisation rate."