That long anticipated day when NSW re-opens from its COVID hibernation is drawing closer. But is our health system ready for it?
It will begin with some eased restrictions on the Monday after the state hits 70 per cent double vaccinations. Even greater freedoms can be expected when that double vaccination rate hits 80 per cent.
The state-wide road map to re-opening is based on modelling by the Doherty Institute, and that first target is shaping up to be mid-October. That's less than a month away.
While at first glance the promise of more freedom seems like a positive, the big question is 'are our rural, regional and remote communities ready?' More specifically 'is our health system ready?'
And the answer to that is we're not, according to high profile 60 Munites reporter Liz Hayes. In 2019, Ms Hayes' father, Bryan Ryan, died from a catastrophic stroke at Manning Base Hospital in Taree after not being administered his prescribed anti-stroke tablets for eight days.
The parliamentary inquiry has already revealed a litany of medical horror stories incuding:
. An 84-year-old woman who died of a chronic subdural hemorrhage after being bounced around hospitals in the Hunter for two and a half months. She originally attended hospital to undergo a hip replacement.
. A woman, who travelled 140km with a twisted bowel, forced to wait hours for a CT scan in the Central West.
. And 60 kilometres from her nearest town a Murrumbidgee mother watched helplessly as her child's windpipe collapsed. The child had been sent home from hospital with a diagnosis of asthma.
How will our health professionals cope with an anticipated increase in patients, in particular COVID-affected patients requiring isolation, and possibly intensive care and ventilation?
The Doherty report notes that "even high levels of vaccination will not be sufficient to stop COVID-19 in its tracks".
The health landscape has changed forever because of this pandemic. And that impacts every one of us.
Many would argue that our health system has been in poor health for quite some time - well before the threat of COVID added significantly to the expectations and burden on our frontline workers such as doctors, nurses and paramedics.
Submissions and witness testimony to a State parliamentary inquiry that began in September last year paint a picture of an already chronically ill system.
Health Services Union NSW Secretary, Gerard Hayes, has been quite clear about his concern that our regional and rural health care services are not prepared for what lies ahead.
"I'm not saying this to be obtuse, but what we have seen over the past decade has been a system tightening its belt constantly and working to be as lean as possible," Mr Hayes said.
Sure there have been millions of dollars allocated to hospital upgrades, and in Maitland's case a new $470m hospital, across the state in recent years but this is all window dressing. More skilled health specialists on the ground are what is really needed.
What good are extra beds in an upgraded hospital if there are not enough staff to adequately support the patients that may occupy those beds?
It is apparent that the powers-that-be have belatedly realised this fact with a recent call out to retired health staff to return to the fold. Quite frankly this may well be too little to late. Our health service should never have been allowed to get to this depleted state.
Dr Debra King, North Coast representative on the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners NSW board fears an increase in general practitioners getting burnt out with the increased workload.
"Our workforce doesn't go up, we just work longer hours," she said.
Meanwhile, our paramedics are being pushed beyond the limit to transport seriously ill COVID patients to a hospital equipped for suitable treatment and isolation. This is on top of a the normal workload typical of a pre-COVID environment.
Burn out among health professionals, pushed beyond the limit to provide care for patients, could well be our next health disaster. We don't have a vaccine for that.
We do have them for COVID-19, though.
Ready or not, we must move out of the lockdown phase of the pandemic.
High vaccination rates are key to minimising harm as we do so.
So too is an adequately resourced and funded health system.
It is well past time regional, rural and remote NSW had one.