25 Feb 2022

Covid-19 Omicron outbreak: Auckland GPs, nursing staff under pressure

7:59 am on 25 February 2022

Frontline health workers are feeling the pressure as the Omicron outbreak rapidly escalates in Auckland.

The man's GP believed he was getting counselling for his depression.

The man's GP believed he was getting counselling for his depression. Photo: 123RF

There were nearly 4000 new cases in Auckland yesterday - a number modellers had not been expecting for another few weeks.

Those on the front line hoped the move to phase three of the government's Covid-19 response will help ease the pressure but said yesterday it only caused confusion, with poor communication from the top.

Mount Eden GP Jodie O'Sullivan said there had been a watershed change this week.

"It feels like we've been preparing for the war and in the last few days it's finally arrived, "she said.

Her small clinic tested only symptomatic people enrolled with them, but still that was 70 people yesterday afternoon, with about 12 positive cases.

Everyone was working very long hours, especially to prepare for the next day, with Ministry of Health rules and requirements changing so quickly, she said.

The clinic was also triaging patients for busy hospitals. This week they were asked to give one Covid-19 patient an ECG heart test to see if she needed to go to hospital, O'Sullivan said.

"We said 'well, we can't do an ECG in the car park,' so we just had to assess her in the car and go 'right, yes, you are unwell enough to go to hospital' ... then convince the hospital they were unwell enough," she said.

In West Auckland, Te Whānau o Waipareira's testing centre gave out 1400 rapid antigen tests (RATs) in just two hours yesterday morning.

Clinical leader Ngaire Harris said there was "chaos" with some people unaware that RATs were being used in Auckland even before the official change to phase three where they become the main testing tool.

That was stressful for confused members of the public and, in turn, for staff, she said.

"The teams were having to get some counselling and just lots of awhi and manaaki from our leadership and our community whānau. So, yeah, they have been a bit frazzled with the surges," she said.

Like many GPs, her team found the supply of RATs was on a knife edge.

They were using every test they had and getting their supply topped up daily, despite, along with South Auckland, being one of the outbreak hotspots, she said.

Even though Omicron was milder for most people, the sheer scale of the outbreak meant hospitals were busy.

Auckland hospitals had 179 Covid patients between them, close to double the record in the Delta outbreak.

To help, some were able to be discharged home and cared for remotely by nurses like Di McCulloch, also a delegate for the Nurses' Organisation.

McCulloch, also a delegate for the Nurses' Organisation, said her team was extremely busy.

The work was intensive, with the nurses calling or Zooming infected people, checking symptoms and breathing.

They also assessed new patients to see if they needed to come to hospital

McCulloch has previously worked in the emergency department and said her colleagues there were busy and exhausted.

Many had to work extra shifts to make up for short staffing.

"I think they have come to the stage where they're saying 'I'm really tired now and I don't know how long I can do this,'" she said.

GPs and testers hoped the move to phase three would help.

In most cases, only household contacts of a case would need to isolate and get tested - cutting out tens of thousands who just this week were still considered close contacts and who were often waiting hours for a test.

Ngaire Harris and Jodie O'Sullivan both said the communication from the Ministry of Health about the new rules had been ropey.

They were finding out far too late about upcoming changes, sometimes with no preview before they were announced publicly.

The ministry needed to have clearer messages direct to the public too, they said.

Auckland was dealing with more than 18,000 active cases and there were more than 9000 around the rest of the country. Public health experts said the real figures were probably ten times that.

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