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The Canberra Times

Canberra cancer clinic slowed, 150 healthcare staff furloughed due to COVID-19

Specialist clinics across Canberra's health system are being closed on a daily basis to deal with staffing shortages, as one cancer clinic had to drastically curb its services last week with key workers off.

The health system is dealing with extraordinary demand at the moment, as COVID hospitalisations remain high. There were 90 patients in hospital with the virus on Monday night, including three in intensive care and two were receiving ventilation.

The territory's hospitals have been forced to delay elective surgeries due to the pressures, with Canberra Health Services chief executive Dave Peffer confirming that about 11 elective surgeries a day were being postponed.

"That might not sound like much but that over a week you're talking 55 to 77 surgeries, depending how many days you might impact in the theatres," he said.

"And then very quickly, in a number of weeks, you're in the hundreds of patients that have been impacted by slow down."

Mr Peffer said every part of the system was "feeling the strain". He said authorities were making daily decisions about how to manage the demand, including if certain clinics need to close or what elective surgeries needed to be delayed.

He pointed to the cancer service, where activity was dramatically slowed last week due to a significant number of staffing shortages.

"Last week we were missing all of our junior medical officers in our cancer service ... I think largely due to COVID, but there were a few who were sick as well," Mr Peffer said.

"To reallocate our consultants out onto the wards meant that we did have to slow the clinic activity in cancer for the better part of a week."

The emergency department is also feeling the pinch, Mr Peffer said on Tuesday that only one senior medical officer was off due to COVID leave, which had been rare over recent months.

Daily absences due to staff illness remain at about 150 a day. Mr Peffer said staff shortages were the biggest challenge, even though the number of health staff had risen over recent years.

"We are experiencing a continual workforce shortage and this is our greatest challenge at this point in time, right across the health system," he said.

"We have done very well in onboarding hundreds of healthcare workers over the last couple of years but despite all of that activity, we are still continuing to experience those shortfalls across our medical, nursing and allied health professions, in particular."

Concerns have been raised about senior and experienced staff leaving the territory's public hospitals, particularly in the intensive care unit after there were 25 resignations over the Omicron peak.

A workforce plan for nursing and midwifery showed that mental health nursing and midwifery were areas of concern as there had been high turnover rates in recent years.

Mr Peffer said last week public hospitals treated their 1000th COVID-19 positive patient in the territory.

He said it was hard to predict what would happen in the next few weeks but lower case numbers suggested the hospitalisation rate may decline.

"We're not quite sure what will happen over [the next] six months, we do expect to see a further peak in COVID cases at some point during the colder months," he said.

Mr Peffer said there were no Canberra ICU patients with both COVID-19 and influenza.

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Canberra Health Services chief executive Dave Peffer. Picture: Elesa Kurtz