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Victoria will ramp up the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to school children as the state’s health system continues to feel the pressure of the growing wave of the virus, with 37,994 new cases and 13 deaths recorded.
Ambulance Victoria enacted a “code red” alert early Tuesday, the second time the disaster protocol has been needed in Melbourne in the past week, a sign of the mounting pressure on the state’s health workforce.
Premier Daniel Andrews noted at least 3992 hospital staff and 442 Ambulance Victoria staff were unable to work on Monday because of COVID-19, while the number of people in hospital with the virus rose to 861 on Tuesday– the highest daily tally since the pandemic began.
“There will be other [healthcare staff] who haven’t yet told us that they’re not available,” Mr Andrews said. “It could be upwards of 5000, maybe even more.
“That’s a lot of staff.”
Tuesday’s coronavirus figures took the number of active cases in the state to at least 171,369. Of the new cases, 19,491 were recorded via PCR testing, while the remaining 18,503 were self-reported from rapid antigen tests.
More than half of the self-reported rapid tests were taken on Monday, 16 per cent were done on Sunday, and the rest were taken over the past five days.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Mr Andrews detailed a $4 million grant program to send pharmacists and general practitioners to schools after hours to administer COVID-19 vaccines.
After children aged five to 11 became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination on Monday, Mr Andrews said the grant program would be in addition to 30 government-established pop-up vaccination clinics at Victorian primary schools in coming weeks.
Across the state, Tuesday’s figures showed there were 117 people getting intensive care, and 27 on a ventilator.
Health authorities were also notified of the deaths of 13 COVID-positive Victorians on Monday, up from two on Sunday. The people who died ranged from those in their 30s to 90s.
NSW reported 25,870 new coronavirus cases.
Code red highlights pressure on ambulance system
Ambulance Victoria was hit with a code red alert about 11.20pm on Monday, with authorities warning the service was facing “extremely high demand” across metropolitan Melbourne.
The alert stayed in effect for more than four hours, with normal operations returning about 3.30am. The service said people should expect delays in paramedics getting to them.
“The global COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a significant and unprecedented impact on health systems including Ambulance Victoria and hospital emergency departments,” an Ambulance Victoria spokesperson said.
Victorian Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill said at one point overnight, 135 cases were listed as “pending” in the emergency service’s system.
“What that means is, someone calls an ambulance, and they’re told, ‘Yes, you need an ambulance, we’ll get you the nearest available’,” Mr Hill said.
“They go into what’s called the pending queue or the pending box where they wait until the next available [ambulance].
“Of that , at one point at least, around 20 were patients who required an ambulance under lights-and-sirens conditions.
“So it could be a chest pain, it could be a baby being born – something like that – where we really need to be there within 15 minutes, but there isn’t even an ambulance to dispatch at all, let alone one close.”
It was the second time in a week Ambulance Victoria was struck by a code red – the same declaration issued in Victoria for the Black Saturday bushfires and the deadly thunderstorm asthma event of 2016.
Mr Hill said while code red protocols – under which people may be directed to take taxis to hospital and non-emergency vehicles can be used for emergency events – were often reserved for disasters, “we are seeing the workload come through at such a high rate that they’re going to that highest level”.
Ambulance Victoria attributed an overnight alert on Wednesday last week to a surge in COVID-related patients calling triple zero for non-urgent care.
At the time, Ambulance Victoria’s acting chief executive Libby Murphy the situation was exacerbated by the number of paramedics in isolation, with 500 staff unable to work while they awaited COVID-19 test results.
Mr Hill said people should take advantage of services like telehealth at night, or make a booking to see their doctor first thing in the morning if they felt unwell. “Don’t wait until 2am,” he said.
New rules to come in on Wednesday night
New COVID-19 restrictions coming into effect at 11.59pm on Wednesday will see indoor dance floors close, aside from at weddings, booster mandates kick in for some critical workers, and new isolation requirements for important workers who come into contact with a virus carrier.
The booster dose mandates will apply to those in healthcare, aged care and disability, emergency services, correctional facilities, hotel quarantine, food distribution and meat processing.
Under the mandate, those already eligible for a booster will have until February 12 to receive their third COVID-19 vaccine dose, while workers not yet eligible will have three months and two weeks from the date of their second-dose deadline.
New isolation rules for workers involved in food and beverage production and sales, including supermarket staff, will also mean they can keep working even after they are declared a close contact of a COVID-19 case.
Victoria keen to make sure school starts on time
The Victorian and NSW governments are planning a similar approach to the resumption of the new school year as the vaccine rollout to children aged five to 11 gets underway.
Across the nation 35,000 children aged five to 11 were vaccinated on Monday – the first day that age group was eligible. At least 3000 of those doses were administered in Victoria, and Mr Andrews said 39,000 Victorians had booked in their children to receive a first dose.
With Victorian state schools scheduled to resume classes on Monday, January 31, Mr Andrews said he wanted to do everything possible to get students back on day one, and to avoid remote learning.
“I think we’re very close when it comes to schools and wanting to have the least impact on our kids as we could possibly have,” Mr Andrews said.
“I look forward to making some announcements; not necessarily a joint announcement, but I think you’ll see there’ll be some consistency between [the] NSW and Victorian school policy.”
The Premier said the start of school may look a little different than normal with, for example, testing measures in place. He said more details about the measures to be taken at schools would be announced in coming weeks.
Some bookings for child vaccinations were cancelled on Monday and Tuesday because of nationwide delivery delays and staff shortages. However, Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd said the country had enough stock of the paediatric Pfizer vaccine for every child aged five to 11 to receive their first dose by the end of the month, either at a GP clinic, pharmacy or state-run clinic.
“There is no need to panic about not being able to get an appointment over the next few days,” he said.
“There will be appointments available over the next couple of weeks before children are starting to go back to school in Australia.”
Victoria’s full vaccination rate for the those over 12 now is at 93 per cent, and 17 per cent of those over 18 have received a booster.
Across all ages, a further 16,433 people got a COVID-19 jab at a state-run clinic on Monday. It was another big day for PCR testing clinics, with 59,670 tests processed.
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