Goulburn Valley Health declares code brown amid major staff shortages

Critical shortages: Goulburn Valley Health chief executive Matt Sharp says 160 furloughed workers and 160 vacant positions represent a staffing shortage of up to 16 per cent at the major regional hospital. Photo by Megan Fisher

A code brown was issued for six major regional hospitals and all metropolitan Melbourne hospitals on Tuesday, with Victoria’s Deputy Premier James Merlino making the announcement amid compounding stressors on the burdened health system due to the spread of the COVID-19 variant Omicron.

The emergency code had not previously been declared at a co-ordinated level across Victoria during the pandemic.

“Health services are well prepared for this, they have their code brown plans in place, and they know what to do,” Mr Merlino said of the order, to take place from noon on Wednesday, January 19.

A code brown is an emergency trigger initiated when additional resources and hands-on-deck are needed for a facility to receive an influx of patients during an external emergency.

Health care workers may be asked to cancel leave, or to work in a different part of the hospital.

“The sickest patients, as has always been the case, will be treated first,” Mr Merlino said.

“We will see the peak in hospitalisations and ICUs over the next two to four weeks.”

Goulburn Valley Health chief executive Matt Sharp said the hospital was on the brink of declaring a code brown during Shepparton’s September outbreak, and it was a decision for which the major regional health service was well prepared.

Mr Sharp said the emergency trigger was the next step in the process that started in January of “slowly and progressively over a period of time closing some of our less essential services”.

This enables staff to be re-deployed to critical areas such as the emergency department.

“We have had challenges constantly in our emergency department in terms of keeping the rosters filled and that's probably where we've seen the highest number of people working additional hours,” Mr Sharp said.

The last time Goulburn Valley Health declared a code brown was following a bus crash near Arcadia in 2021.

Significant staff shortages

GV Health is operating with up to 16 per cent fewer staff than it would normally.

The number of staff unable to work this week due to COVID-19 infection or isolation requirements has doubled compared to last week, and there are a significant number of advertised positions to be filled.

“It's a real challenge for us ... on the back of the fact that today we have 160 staff furloughed because of COVID,” Mr Sharp said, adding that last week only 40 to 50 staff fit that category.

Mr Sharp said 160 furloughed staff represented about seven or eight per cent of the GV Health workforce.

“And on top of that, we have around about 160 full-time positions that we're unable to recruit to.”

During the code brown, GV Health will continue to perform only category one elective surgeries and emergency specialist clinic appointments.

The same applies for the hospital’s dental services and other community health and ambulatory services.

Staff working in education and supervision have been shifted into direct clinical delivery roles.

“We've been progressively deploying people into critical areas such as our emergency department, our operating theatre and critical care unit, for example, as well as of course to our wards,’’ Mr Sharp said.

The decision of whether to cancel staff leave was “a constant juggle”, Mr Sharp said, between giving staff much-needed rest and ensuring continuity of service.

Late on Tuesday afternoon the Federal Government activated a private hospitals agreement as part of its Omicron response plan, enabling thousands of workers from private facilities to fill shifts in the public system.

The agreement, made in April 2020, will see up to 57,000 nurses and more than 100,000 staff made available to affected areas around Australia.

It remains to be seen whether the Goulburn Valley will directly benefit from the plan.

Victorian shadow health minister Georgie Crozier said the Andrews Government’s code brown announcement indicated “just how dire” Victorian’s health crisis was.

“Having had two years to prepare Victoria’s health services, the Andrews Labor Government has failed Victorians — leaving many at risk,” she said.

Local COVID-19 numbers

There were 17 COVID-19 patients admitted at GV Health’s respiratory ward on Tuesday, and an additional two patients in intensive care with the virus, one of whom was on a ventilator.

There were more than 2900 active cases across the GV Health local public health unit area on Tuesday, and Greater Shepparton recorded 68 new cases amid a total of 1387 active cases.

More than 900 rapid antigen tests were handed out at the Shepparton Showgrounds testing site on Monday, the first day they were freely available.

Testing site to move

With the Spring Car Nationals roaring into Shepparton this weekend, the GV Health Shepparton Showgrounds testing site will temporarily relocate to Shepparton Sports Precinct.

The site is set to open on Wednesday or Thursday, with details to be announced on the GV Health Facebook page.