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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Josh Nicholas and Cait Kelly

Covid hospitalisations in Australia hit new record, surpassing January peak

An ambulance is parked in front of the Emergency & Trauma service at the Royal Melbourne Hospital
Nurses and doctors in hospitals say the system is struggling, with patients in emergency wards for days because they cannot get a bed on a ward. Photograph: Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images

The number of Australians in hospital with Covid-19 has reached the highest point of the entire pandemic, according to data from CovidLive.

On Monday, there were 5,429 Covid patients in hospital, surpassing the previous record of 5,390 set in late January.

But while hospitalisations have hit a new peak, the number of patients in intensive care is down considerably, from 420 patients in January to 161 on Monday.

New South Wales accounted for more than 2,300 of those in hospital, but the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania were hard-hit on a per capita basis, with 162 and 183 hospitalisations respectively.

Since the beginning of March, the number of patients in hospital with Covid nationwide has not dropped below 2,000.

Nurses and doctors working in hospitals say the system is struggling, with some patients left for days in the emergency wards because they cannot get a bed on a ward.

In Western Australia and Tasmania the current number of patients in hospital on Monday was double or triple what the number in early January was, according to the CovidLive data. Queensland, South Australia and the ACT have also set new records for the number of patients in hospital.

Vice-president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Chris Moy, said the number of Covid patients was “just massive”.

“The average public hospital has 600 to 700 beds, so we are talking eight major public hospitals,” Moy said.

“The bottom line is on the ground, my colleagues are angry, desperate, fatigued and they have a terrible situation where there are not enough beds or nurses.

“It’s rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.”

Hospitalisations in NSW and Victoria are yet to reach their previous peaks, but both are trending upwards.

Hospitalisation numbers are generally considered a trailing indicator of Covid waves, as they tend to lag cases by a couple of weeks.

You can see the latest numbers for each jurisdiction in the table below.

Moy said the country had “walked right into this” and needed stronger leadership on health measures like mask mandates.

“[Hospitals] are all under enormous strain. It’s not at the peak, and my understanding is that [cases are] going to [peak] soon, but the peak in hospitals will come much later than that.”

In January, Australia was recording up to 100,000 cases a day, but on Monday only 36,507 cases were officially recorded.

Deakin University chair of epidemiology, Prof Catherine Bennett, said it was likely there were similar numbers of Covid cases in the community now compared to January.

“Cases are not reliable data … the proportion varies with time, age groups, people’s anxiety, whether they need a negative result to have paid time off, or sick leave. There is a whole lot going on there,” Bennett said.

“If you look at hospitalisations, however, to me that’s a more reliable indicator … We’re screening people on admission, it gives us an understanding of what we have in the community.

“It looks from that we have comparable numbers.”

Bennett said Covid deaths peaked around two weeks after case numbers last peaked on 15 January.

“So we’ll probably see this peak soonish and then we’ll see deaths still continue to rise for a couple of weeks after that,” she said.

Epidemiologist Prof Mike Toole said the lower rate of people in ICU is being driven by a mix of vaccines and the fact the disease is hitting older Australians in aged care harder.

“It’s partly about the variety and partly about vaccines,” Toole said.

He said a lot of patients in aged care would be treated in the facility, instead of being taken to hospital. This would depress the number of people going into the system.

“A lot of the deaths are in aged care homes and a lot more people are dying in aged care, compared with ICU,” he said.

Notes and methods:

  • Data based on releases from state and territory health departments.

  • Gaps in the data have been filled using linear interpolation.

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