Cases of COVID-19 are rising faster in the Northern Territory than anywhere else in Australia and health workers say it is likely the true number of cases is much higher than the official figure.
- The daily case number average has grown to 95, which is a 119.3 per cent jump on the previous week
- A major Top End health clinic warns official case numbers are likely a significant under-count
- The government says hospitals are prepared for higher case numbers
Average daily case numbers increased 113.9 per cent to 95 over the past week according to federal government data.
The rate is faster than all other states and territories, with the next biggest jump being 46 per cent in Tasmania.
The NT scrapped the requirement for people to declare positive rapid antigen test results last month.
At the time, health officials said they expected to see cases increasing in the NT as new variants continued to push up infections interstate.
There were 25 patients in hospital on Monday according to NT Health, up from less than 10 when restrictions were lifted.
One patient currently requires oxygen.
But the head of one of Darwin’s major respiratory clinics, Palmerston GP Superclinic chief executive Robyn Cahill, said she believed the official figure was a signficant under-count.
“Because [the general public] don’t have to report anymore if we test positive, we are not really getting an accurate number of what … the COVID-19 cases in the community are,” she said.
“Certainly over the last few weeks we have noticed an increase in the number of people coming through who are testing positive.”
Dr Cahill said about half of the people presenting to her centre’s clinic over the past couple of weeks with cold or flu symptoms were testing positive for COVID-19.
She said although the situation was not comparable to the wave at the beginning of the year, when average daily case numbers topped 1000, already-stretched general practitioners were under pressure.
High demand on hospitals, but system better prepared, doctors say
Alice Springs-based Dr Stephen Gourley, president-elect of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, said vaccines and antiviral therapies were helping blunt the impact of COVID-19 on the hospital system.
“We are being able to manage the disease and outbreaks better than we were. It’s not 100 per cent perfect, there are still people who can succumb to COVID-19,” he said.
“Overall we are in a better position than we were at the beginning of the pandemic.”
But Dr Gourley said the NT was still seeing “record numbers of people presenting” for treatment of other illnesses, heightening the risk of any influx of more patients.
Demand pressures for the emergency department last month forced NT Health to declare another ‘code yellow’ alert in Darwin, forcing some non-essential surgeries to be postponed.
The ABC understands more beds are being dedicated towards the so-called “red-zone” in Royal Darwin, where suspected COVID patients are triaged.
A spokeswoman for NT Health said the Royal Darwin Hospital was currently dedicating an entire ward to treating COVID-19 patients.
In July this year, health authorities reinstated two dedicated COVID-19 wards at the hospital to deal with a third wave of infections.
“NT Health has undertaken extensive planning for COVID waves and is implementing those processes as a priority so hospital admissions can continue to be managed as required,” the spokeswoman said on Monday.
She said vaccination continued to be the best defence against severe illness.
Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said the pandemic was transitioning away from an emergency situation and into “a community-based setting for COVID-19”, saying the hospital system was better prepared for milder variants of the virus thanks to vaccines and antiviral drugs.
“People will still get COVID, just as they get common colds and flus, but we have those protections. We have also seen the virus change,” she said.
“We have seen an increase in cases, we have predicted an increase of cases, but the pressure on our hospital system will not be as great as when we first faced COVID, because of those measures we have.”