Riding the COVID storm at St Vincent’s

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    St Vincent’s Public Hospital CEO Associate Professor Anthony Schembri says health care workers have done an incredible job to care for COVID-19 patients and prepare for any further outbreaks. PHOTO: Supplied

    For Rachel Macfarlane the months since February have been a bit of a blur.

    The incident response manager for St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney was deployed to Darwin to provide support to the COVID-19 stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship.

    Back in Sydney she has been a driving force in managing the hospital’s COVID response in establishing its testing sites, with the first on 13 March at St Vincent’s quickly followed by Bondi and Darlinghurst.

    “There were two of us and We were inundated that first day.”

    “It’s been so overwhelming, when we first set up the flu clinic in the hospital there were two of us and we were inundated that first day,” Ms Macfarlane told The Catholic Weekly. From 12-14 hour days in the first weeks of swabbing nearly 250 or 300 people a day, the Bondi site remains the busiest with around 200 tests a day and last week began testing children from the age of the five.

    The testing sites see a total of 370 people each day while its SydPath laboratory has processed nearly 25,000 coronavirus tests.

    Incident response manager for St Vincent’s Public Hospital Rachel Macfarlane. PHOTO: Supplied.

    “The teenagers are pretty good, but the little ones can be quite problematic to test because it’s not a pleasant experience,” said Ms Macfarlane.

    “But the paediatric nurse we’ve got on site has been amazing and we have bubbles and things to distract them while they’re being tested, and thankfully so far all the kids tested have been negative.

    “Now we’ve got some breathing space we’re tightening up our processes and getting some feedback from the staff to make sure everything is working well.”

    St Vincent’s chief executive officer Associate Professor Anthony Schembri said that as the focus moves to increased testing and preventing localised outbreaks, he is proud of the health care staff and other essential workers who have unflinchingly borne months of constant change, fatigue and uncertainty.

    “Not one of them has said to me that they didn’t want to provide care to a patient who might have COVID and they have responded with bravery and with absolute compassion and care for all in a very challenging and uncertain environment,” Prof Schembri said.

    “Not one of them has said to me that they didn’t want to provide care”

    “Wearing all of the personal protective equipment is very physically draining on them and we’ve seen from overseas that health care workers themselves have fallen as a result of COVID, so I am very grateful to all of our staff and essential workers who have come in every day to provide care.”

    It’s just one example of the legacy of the Sisters of Charity to care for the sick and the vulnerable still evident at St Vincent’s.

    St Vincent’s is working with partners St Vincent’s Private Hospital and The Mater Hospital to ensure the city has the capacity and resources in case of a large surge of COVID patients, he said.

    It has also formed rapid outbreak response teams to undertake mass testing, provide clinical care and expert advice on infection prevention and support staff in places vulnerable to outbreaks such as aged care facilities, boarding houses and hostels.

    As the lockdown restrictions continue to be lifted, Prof Schembri says Australia has “entered a different phase” of its pandemic response in which it will live with the virus for an uncertain length of time until a vaccine or cure is found.

    “Until then we anticipate that rather than large-scale community acquired infections, that there will be smaller localised outbreaks and so we’re prepared to respond to that,” he said.
    “But if this were to change and we were required to have a more extensive response, we’ve got plans to rapidly scale up our response as well.”

    St Vincent’s is also part of the international race to better understand and beat the virus, working with its research partners the Garvin, Victor Chang and Kirby Institutes on clinical trials of new medicines and treatment approaches, Prof Schembri said.

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