NSW is considering offering free flu vaccines amid a dramatic increase in flu cases as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put NSW hospitals under significant pressure.
The number of emergency room presentations for flu has increased as staff continue to fall victim to the viruses.
On an average day, about 2000 employees are absent from hospitals.
After two years with few cases, Health Secretary Brad Hazzard says a “horror flu season” has hit NSW earlier and harder than in many years.”
“It’s absolutely critical that you get your flu vaccine as soon as possible,” he said.
There have been 14,812 reported cases of flu this year and 3,349 have been to the emergency department with flu-like illnesses in NSW this year, a third of them in the past week.
More than 8,000 cases of COVID were reported Tuesday, with 1,234 people hospitalized with the virus, 38 of them in the ICU.
The flu last week took more than 1,100 people to emergency rooms, 150 of whom were hospitalized and six in intensive care units.
Secretary of Health Susan Pearce said the twin blow of a flu resurgence in an unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic put emergency departments “under considerable pressure”.
It also comes as the health system tries to clear a backlog of elective surgeries.
“Please don’t call triple zero and don’t go to the emergency room for non-emergency issues,” she said.
“We are urging the community to support us during this challenging time by ensuring those who need emergency medical care can get it through ambulances and emergency rooms to save lives,” she said.
Anyone unsure about whether to go to the hospital should visit healthdirect.gov.au or call Healthdirect on 1800 022 222.
Chief pediatrician Matt O’Meara said children between the ages of six months and five years were particularly vulnerable to the flu, with at least 10 percent of young people hospitalized with the virus so sick they needed intensive care.
Of the 165 children under the age of five who reported to hospitals with a flu-like illness last week, 27 were admitted.
“Parents can reduce the risk of this by having their child vaccinated,” says Dr. O’Meara.
About 11 percent of children under five in NSW are vaccinated and about 51 percent of people 65 and older.
Both groups are eligible for free vaccines, as are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of all ages older than six months, as well as people who have serious medical conditions or are pregnant.
Dominic Dwyer, NSW Health’s director of public health pathology, told AAP it was important to reduce any barrier to getting a vaccine to increase uptake.
“That could be things like the availability of a vaccine, locations where you can get vaccinations, the cost of vaccinations, all that sort of thing,” said Professor Dwyer.
Queensland announced Monday that it would provide free vaccines to everyone for a month.
“That’s one example of strategies you can take to increase vaccination coverage … you need a combination of approaches to get people vaccinated,” said Prof. Dwyer.
NSW is also looking at providing free vaccines and the government has been working with pharmacists and GPs on a strategy.
“Hopefully we can follow a similar path (to Queensland), but it’s a little too early,” Hazzard said.
“We just need to make sure the system works across the board.”
In addition to vaccines, the simple precautionary habits people have picked up during the pandemic, such as wearing masks, washing hands and staying home when sick, can all help reduce flu transmission, Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said.
Australian Associated Press
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