SA COVID cases to soar as Labor reveals elective surgery ban

Premier Peter Malinauskas says new modelling predicts the state will pass 8000 daily COVID-19 cases within weeks and that last Friday – the day before the state election – SA Health banned all non-urgent overnight elective surgery but the Marshall Government did not announce it.

Mar 22, 2022, updated Mar 22, 2022
Premier Peter Malinauskas with chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier, state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens and incoming Health Minister Chris Picton (top left). Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Premier Peter Malinauskas with chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier, state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens and incoming Health Minister Chris Picton (top left). Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Speaking at the State Administration Centre government headquarters earlier today alongside state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens and chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier in his first official press conference as premier, Peter Malinauskas said he was “shocked” to learn about the situation inside South Australia’s public hospitals.

“Our hospital system is under extraordinary strain,” he told reporters.

“I have been formally advised by the chief executive officer of (SA) Health that last week was one of the toughest weeks that South Australia has ever experienced with respect to hospital pressure.

“There is a lot of demand on hospital capacity at the moment, so much so that I can reveal today that on Friday last week a decision was taken to ban all non-urgent overnight elective surgery in our public hospitals.

“You need to be aware about the state of the situation and why this is the case.”

Malinauskas called the press conference after meeting with Spurrier and Stevens yesterday to discuss the state’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He said until that meeting, he was “certainly unaware” about the current state of South Australia’s health system, saying it was up to former Health Minister Stephen Wade to inform the public about the ban on elective surgery.

“I don’t recall Premier Marshall or Minister Wade on Friday telling the people of South Australia the day before the election that they were cancelling elective surgery and that the hospital system wasn’t coping,” he said.

“What I’m saying is they (the public) certainly weren’t told.”

SA Health chief executive Chris McGowan, who was also at the press conference, told reporters that he made the decision not to announce the elective surgery ban because the government was in caretaker period.

He said the ban was restricted to one local health network and such a move was “not unusual” when a hospital experiences a surge in demand.

“We have had a significant increase in hospital demand,” he said.

“We have staff who are close contacts who are being furloughed and while we are changing some policy in that respect to bring those close contacts back where it is safe to do so, it puts enormous pressure on our hospital system, with their staff already very tired after two years of this (pandemic).”

Data released by Malinauskas’ office this morning shows as at 11am yesterday, there were 120 patients across emergency departments waiting for a bed, 18 of whom were waiting for over 24 hours.

It comes as new modelling commissioned by the State Government and undertaken by the University of Adelaide shows South Australia’s COVID-19 case numbers are set to surge significantly in the coming weeks.

Malinauskas said the Government received the modelling “some time” ago and it was updated last night.

“I want to make that public to the people of South Australia today,” he said.

“It’s an important act of transparency (and) I think South Australians are entitled to know where we’re at.”

Spurrier said the government was predicting “upwards of 8000 cases over the next couple of weeks”, which would put pressure on public hospitals.

“We need to look at our ward occupancy and particularly the adult ward numbers,” she said.

“It’s (the projected increase in hospitalisations) very similar to what we had experienced earlier in January, so it should be within our hospital capacity.

“But, as our Premier has very clearly said, our hospitals are under a lot of pressure and we need to look very carefully at making sure that we can deal with all of those admissions.”

Spurrier said there would be also be an increase in the number of people dying after testing positive for COVID-19 in South Australia, but she was unable to say how many deaths the modelling predicted.

She said the surge in COVID-19 cases was prompted by the recent relaxing of restrictions, the emergence of the highly-transmissible Omicron BA.2 subvariant and Mad March festivities.

Malinauskas said following yesterday’s meeting, he had directed SA Health to “rapidly develop a plan for urgent additional hospital preparedness” for the projected rise in hospital cases.

He said he had also directed SA Health and the Department of the Premier and Cabinet to develop a campaign to encourage more people to have their booster vaccinations.

About 30 per cent of South Australians who are eligible for their booster shot are yet to get it.

“If we can increase booster rates that will give… the state coordinator more ability to mitigate restrictions and we are going to ensure that my government does everything we can to increase those booster rates, including by looking at substantial campaigns run by the government,” he said.

“If we can get that message out there in a stronger and more powerful way, if we have a plan to do that, that will aid the state coordinator in their efforts.”

After recording a surge in COVID-19 cases late last week, South Australia recorded just 3686 new infections today.

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There are 165 people in hospital, including 11 in intensive care and two on ventilators.

Four people died after testing positive for COVID-19, including a man in his 50s, a man in his 60s and a man and woman in their 80s.

Malinauskas announces changes to COVID management

Malinauskas said effective immediately, the state’s COVID-Ready committee, which was previously the advisory body to Stevens on restrictions changes, would be abandoned.

Instead, he said advice about restrictions changes would come from a cabinet sub-committee called the “Emergency Management Council”.

He said the council would comprise MPs, as well as public health officers and public servants including the under treasurer.

“I think a new government does provide the opportunity for a fresh set of eyes and a new approach,” he said.

“I do want to see cabinet play a more substantial role in ensuring the meetings we’re having are actually resulting in actions that can be delivered by the government.

“The people of South Australia elect a premier to make decisions and I seek to chair meetings that make decisions.”

Malinauskas said a key priority of the council would be to ensure South Australia’s level of restrictions matches what is in place across the rest of the country.

He said the council would first meet at 9am on Friday – the day after cabinet ministers are sworn in at Government House.

“I want to give the state coordinator as many options as possible to see us reach that national consistency as quickly as possible,” he said.

“That sub-committee of cabinet will have the authority and the power to be able to issue instructions of the government effective immediately to ensure that actions happen immediately.”

Malinauskas said by Friday afternoon, the government would “have more announcements potentially to make regarding COVID outcomes”.

Reducing the quarantine period for close contacts from 14 days down to seven will be on the council’s agenda on Friday.

June 30 deadline to revoke emergency declaration

The premier has given the government until June 30 to revoke the state’s major emergency declaration, which is currently being used to implement vaccination mandates and restrictions.

The declaration has been in place for two years, despite previous attempts to find other legislative levers to manage the state’s handling of the pandemic.

“It is my government’s ambition to ensure that we don’t see an extension to the emergency management declaration beyond 30 June and I conveyed those wishes to the police commissioner,” Malinauskas said.

“It is my desire that it conclude even earlier than that.

“That may be achievable if the government does everything we possibly can to give the state coordinator more options.”

Malinauskas said he last night directed the Crown Solicitor’s Office to “immediately undertake a piece of work to look at the legislative change that may be required to make the Public Health Act more functional in the context of the pandemic”.

He said amending the Public Health Act could “minimise” the need to continue to extend the major emergency declaration.

“We do need to evolve here, we do need to move quickly, we do need to see a situation where the emergency management declaration is no longer required,” he said.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that happens as quickly as possible.”

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