Covid-19: Fears Rotorua and Taupō ICUs and ventilators not enough

11:05 pm on 15 November 2021

Will 14 ventilators and four ICU beds be enough for a region of 116,000 people?

Health workers take part in ICU training for Covid-19 at Hutt Hospital.

An intensive care ward in New Zealand. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

"A disaster waiting to happen"; that's how Rotorua MP Todd McClay described Lakes DHB's ability to cope with a Delta outbreak after it was revealed there are only four fully staffed intensive care beds in Rotorua.

McClay called on the government to urgently increase intensive care capacity in the area, where seven cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed since Saturday.

Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi said the Waiariki region could face a "huge catastrophe" in an outbreak, and he wanted to see more support for people self-isolating.

But Lakes District Health Board chief executive Nick Saville-Wood said the biggest challenge was staff resourcing.

He said vaccination rates must increase.

However a Ministry of Health spokesperson said all DHBs had done "significant planning and preparation work" to manage an outbreak.

Health Minister Andrew Little said he was confident DHBs could care for people ill with Covid-19.

Lakes DHB confirmed it had six intensive care unit beds, but only four were resourced - which refers to staffing. There are also six coronary care unit beds, four of them resourced.

The DHB had 16 ventilators, but only 14 were resourced.

According to the ministry, there are 116,370 people in the DHB's boundaries, which includes Rotorua and the wider Taupō and Tūrangi areas. Both Rotorua and Taupō have hospitals.

Rotorua Hospital.

Rotorua Hospital Photo: Supplied/ Rotorua Daily Post - Andrew Warner

Toi Te Ora Public Health indicative modelling reported by the Rotorua Daily Post found that once a 90 percent eligible vaccination rate was reached it was estimated there could be 190 Covid-19 cases a week in Lakes DHB during 2022.

It estimated that could result in 12 hospitalisations and one death a week.

By late last week 71 percent of Lakes DHB's eligible population was fully vaccinated, and 83 percent had received at least one dose.

Another 24,046 people needed to be fully vaccinated to reach the 90 percent target.

For Māori in the DHB, 70 percent have already had one dose and 53 percent have had both.

Rotorua MP Todd McClay.

MP Todd McClay Photo: Supplied/ Rotorua Daily Post - Andrew Warner

McClay said the government had not prepared for the outbreaks with enough urgency, and he was worried the Lakes hospitals would struggle.

That would have a knock-on effect to other people needing intensive care or ventilators, and he was concerned it would cost lives.

"It also puts extreme pressure on our doctors and nurses."

McClay said other countries had increased intensive care capacity as a response to Covid-19, but he believed the New Zealand Government had not in any significant way.

"They have spent money on cameras on fishing boats and the arts. If you're going to borrow money for Covid [response], spend it on Covid."

The approach was "deeply disappointing and extremely worrying" as the Lakes DHB area was "vulnerable with very low vaccination rates", he said.

"It feels like a disaster waiting to happen. The people of Lakes should not be forgotten or left out.

"It needs to be fixed, and questions need to be asked why we're in this situation."

Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi.

MP Rawiri Waititi Photo: Supplied/ Rotorua Daily Post - Andrew Warner

Waiariki MP Rawiri Waititi said he broadly agreed with McClay's view that there should have been more government investment in health sector preparedness for a community outbreak.

He said at this stage he did not believe the DHB had the ability to deal with a Delta outbreak.

Waititi said capacity needed to be ramped up, but early detection was crucial, as was giving Māori and iwi-led organisations such as Whānau Ora the resources and data to reach people and support them.

"We need to ensure our people have the right support. If not, we could have a huge catastrophe in Waiariki."

He believed the whole health system was "broken from the start", and DHBs had been "failing Māori for a long time".

He said the solution was to let Māori-led organisations such as Whānau Ora do the work and "tidy up the mess".

He said testing needs to be ramped up across the region and needs to be accessible.

Lakes District health Board chief executive Nick Saville-Wood.

Lakes District health board chief executive Nick Saville-Wood. Photo: Supplied/ Rotorua Daily Post - Andrew Warner

DHB chief executive Saville-Wood said ongoing global problems with staff resourcing were creating difficulties.

"Like all DHBs ... we have a huge amount of ongoing vacancies and our nurses have been under the pump for two years."

Based on current projections and Auckland's experience, he said Lakes DHB did have capacity, but staffing was still a challenge.

Today, 90 people were in hospital in Auckland and seven were in ICU or high dependency care units.

"The easiest way to deter overloading our health system is to be vaccinated."

He said the situation was "very concerning" as at current vaccination levels there was a "strong likelihood" demand for hospital services would increase if Covid-19 spread.

"The lower the vaccination rate means that the level of care for the unvaccinated remains high."

At a DHB meeting on Friday morning, before cases were confirmed in the area, board members expressed concern for the well-being of its Māori population should there be an outbreak.

A ministry spokesperson said the DHB had "significant Covid-19 experience" as there are three MIQ facilities in the region.

"The ministry-led preparedness programme is also providing additional support and advice."

He said Lakes DHB had four resourced intensive care beds as well as two more "available if necessary", and all were well supported and could operate a comprehensive ICU service.

"If necessary non-essential planned care can be deferred to allow more intensive care unit capacity to be available to support people with Covid-19."

Minister of health Andrew Little said the government had been preparing for an outbreak since August last year.

He said additional ICU capacity was available where needed, and the ministry had a store of 250 ventilators, in addition to the 430 deployed around the country.

The vaccination campaign meant fewer people with Covid-19 would require hospital care and would instead be able to recover at home, with involvement from primary and community care, including Māori-led organisations.

"That is what is being put together at the moment, and I'm confident that with every DHB now having appointed a lead person for care in the community, as well as groups of DHBs coming together and regions also coordinating regionally, [that] means that we will be providing the support and care that people need if they become ill with Covid."

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Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.

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