Flu puts ‘extreme pressure’ on hospitals, one has ‘unprecedented’ patient numbers

An Auckland hospital has seen the number of flu patients quadruple compared to pre-Covid years, while Christchurch hospital has taken on “historic” numbers of patients as winter illnesses bite.

Rates of hospitalizations due to serious acute respiratory infections in the past four weeks have been the highest of all year – reaching a peak of 23.5 hospitalizations per 100,000 peoplein the week ending June 12.

Dr Vanessa Thornton, clinical director of hospital services at Middlemore Hospital, said the South Auckland Hospital was under “extreme pressure”.

One in five New Zealanders have been vaccinated against the flu so far this winter.  (File photo)

Sungmi Kim / Stuff

One in five New Zealanders have been vaccinated against the flu so far this winter. (File photo)

The number of flu patients quadrupled compared to 2017, 2018 and 2019.

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In order to ease the pressure on the emergency department, visits to many general practitioners in Manukau counties were free over the weekend, and many pharmacies offered free painkillers to children without a prescription. This led to a drop in emergency room visits of almost 100 people compared to the previous weekend.

Hospitalizations due to serious acute respiratory infections in the past four weeks have been the highest all year, according to ESR surveillance data.  (File photo)

Things

Hospitalizations due to serious acute respiratory infections in the past four weeks have been the highest all year, according to ESR surveillance data. (File photo)

Further afield on Monday, the Canterbury DHB general medical team was take care of 206 peoplethat he “believes to be [an] absolute record,” said managing director Peter Bramley.

Emergency department staff were seeing more than 300 patients a day – higher than a typical winter pre-pandemic – and Christchurch Hospital was operating at 99% occupancy on Tuesday.

Last weekend, nearly four in 10 patients were sick enough to be admitted. Admissions fell around 30% on Monday and Tuesday, said Canterbury DHB Māori and Pacific Health executive director Hector Matthews.

About 200 hospital staff were on sick leave every day – more than the numbers seen in a pre-2020 winter. Elective surgeries have been delayed as a result, he said.

GP surgeries and pharmacies were also feeling the strain. Matthews was aware of a GP practice which had to close on Monday afternoon because too many staff were sick.

Hospitals in Aotearoa are seeing high demand in emergency departments as rates of winter illnesses rise.  (File photo)

Eunika Sopotnicka

Hospitals in Aotearoa are seeing high demand in emergency departments as rates of winter illnesses rise. (File photo)

“Winter has only just started, so we have a long way to go. We will get through this because we will always get through this, but people are working very hard.

Flu outbreaks have also been detected in some senior care facilities and early childhood education centers, according to surveillance reports from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) showed.

Hutt Valley and Capital & Coast DHB chief medical officer John Tait said Wellington and Hutt ERs were also seeing higher patient numbers, averaging 175 and 138 patients per day respectively.

“Unprecedented” levels absence of staff due to illness, the long tail of Covid-19 and the high winter and flu demand, motivated the decision to “significantly reduce” planned care over the next four weeks.

The vast majority of planned care was postponed to the area where it was clinically safe to do so, he said.

Meanwhile, schools in Taranaki were reporting that nearly a third of staff and students were showing flu or gastro-like symptoms.

New Plymouth Principals Association Brigitte Luke said schools were seeing 20-30 per cent of their roles on sick leave – putting ‘tremendous pressure’ on some schools, which had to juggle staff illness and a lack of substitute teachers available.

In the week ending June 10, rate of calls to Healthline about flu-like illnesses exceeded historical rates for almost all DHBs for which data are available.

Health rates were “particularly high” compared to this week in previous years for Auckland, Canterbury, the west coast and the southern DHBs.

This winter, 20%​ of Kiwis have received a flu shot – 64%​ of people over 65 have had theirs.

This year, funded flu shots have been extended to Maori and Pacific people aged 55 to 64 in a bid to further protect those most at risk. So far, 28% of Maori aged 55-64 and 30% of Pacific people in that age group have been vaccinated.