Shock figure facing hospitals even before pandemic



QUEENSLAND public emergency departments have seen thousands more patients in the first quarter of this year compared to 2019, suggesting hospitals would have been overwhelmed during the coronavirus pandemic without the strict public health measures that have been implemented.

In January, February and March this year, Queensland Health data shows public hospital emergency departments recorded 542,712 presentations, compared to 512,394 in the corresponding months of 2019 - a jump of almost 6 per cent.

Outside the Gold Coast University Hospital Emergency Department. Photo: Scott Fletcher
Outside the Gold Coast University Hospital Emergency Department. Photo: Scott Fletcher

Anecdotally, patient numbers in Queensland emergency departments are down during the first two weeks of April, possibly as a result of a drop in other infections due to social distancing restrictions and quarantine measures brought in to contain the spread of the pandemic virus.

But experts believe Queensland, and Australia generally, would have experienced similar scenes to those being observed in the coronavirus hot spots of the US, Italy, Spain and the UK, had people such as the state's Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young, not acted as soon as they did.

Queensland Health issued "an important public health alert" as early as January 10, warning doctors about a cluster of pneumonia cases that had been reported in Wuhan, China, caused by a novel coronavirus.

"Be alert for patients who have travelled to Wuhan, China, within two weeks of onset of illness and who present with fever and respiratory symptoms. Please place a surgical mask on the patient and isolate as soon as they are identified," the alert said.


Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young. Photo: Annette Dew
Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young. Photo: Annette Dew

University of Queensland virologist Ian Mackay said Australia could have undoubtedly followed the paths of some of the worst hit countries, which have experienced thousands of deaths and the inundation of their hospital systems, without introducing border controls and other restrictions as early as we did.

"We saw it coming and thankfully, did something about it rather than going: It's over there, it won't bother us like some countries did," Associate Professor Mackay said.

"There's no reason to believe that in Australia, all our major cities wouldn't have been just as badly affected.

"The threat right now is that people are going: 'Oh, but nothing's happening. We didn't need to worry. It was never going to be a problem.' It's not a problem because of all the work and worry that we put into it."

Professor Mackay said Queensland had been preparing to cope with sustained community transmission of the virus, which had not yet materialised.

But that could change.

"If you don't take it that seriously, you are not prepared for it. Not mentally. Not practically," he said. "Queensland has always been ahead of that curve. We've been planning for the worst to make sure that we're ready for that."

Professor Mackay warned that Queensland and Australia could not rush to relax restrictions, despite dramatic reductions in the number of cases being reported on a day-to-day basis.

"There's obviously a big push economically to get things moving. It's got to be balanced by the risks to health," he said.

In many ways, the virus which emerged in Wuhan in December last year continues to remain a mystery to scientists, with researchers around the world working hard to develop a vaccine and others trialling treatments.

Professor Mackay said the number of potential asymptomatic cases in the community continued to be a concern.

"We don't know how many there are, we don't know how many of them that can transmit and cause new cases," he said.

"Those sorts of things do not just spell fear in the public but leave a lot of questions that haven't been answered yet."

Originally published as Shock figure facing hospitals even before pandemic