Major hotels will be turned into quarantine zones and even hospital wards in an emergency plan that is also mobilising industry to fill looming shortages for medical equipment to fight the coronavirus.
Hotels are demanding they be treated as essential services when governments order community shutdowns within days, arguing they can make rooms available for healthcare or self-isolation. The head of Australia's largest private health insurer also predicts private hospitals will be required to treat COVID-19 patients amid concerns intensive care units and other health services will be overwhelmed.
Hotels could be used as quarantine zones for people who cannot self-isolate at home.
With experts warning hospitals will be overloaded within weeks, the Morrison government is working with manufacturers to make thousands more ventilators, masks, sanitisers and other essential products. Australian Hotels Association chief executive Steve Ferguson said a number of hotels and motels had advised the NSW and Victorian governments they were prepared to help with individual self-isolation.
Mr Ferguson said the industry needed to be added to the essential services list for many accommodation venues to continue to trade and was working with governments for that to happen.
“A number of our members have made it clear they are willing to help, especially to provide a place for people who need to self-isolate and, because of their family at home, need an alternative place,” Mr Ferguson said.
“At this time of need, we are looking to provide as many services as we can to assist people.”
Grattan Institute chief executive John Daley estimated on Saturday that Australia would run out of capacity in its intensive care wards when the country has about 45,000 infections – a small fraction of the population.
Hotels are putting in place workplace practice guidelines for staff and customers to make sure food can be delivered and washing can be collected without any contact between hotel staff and guests.
Industry sources say drive-through bottle shops could also be used to sell limited essentials such as bread, milk and toothpaste to avoid face-to-face contact for shoppers, especially older Australians.
The head of Australia’s largest private health fund is preparing for the private health system to start treating coronavirus patients, as the number of cases continues to rise and threatens to overwhelm the nation’s hospitals.
Medibank chief executive Craig Drummond said patients with private insurance might have to be transferred from public hospitals to private hospitals, where their health fund would cover their treatment.
“I think that we could well see transfer of private patients out of the public system into the private system. And they would come in as medical patients, and people would be covered for that,” Mr Drummond said.
He said an influx of coronavirus patients into private hospitals would likely cause non-urgent procedures to be cancelled, as has happened in France.
Australia’s largest private hospital operator, Ramsay Health Care, said last week it was willing to assist public hospitals by undertaking surgeries for public patients in its hospitals, and could also “provide capacity to cater for COVID-19 patients” if needed.
In one example of what could be done, West Australian Premier Mark McGowan said his government was talking to hotel operators to use their rooms for individuals who needed to be quarantined.
“In addition to that, we’re now actively investigating using Rottnest for this purpose – taking Rottnest Island and turning it into a quarantine zone for Western Australia,” he said. The island, west of Perth, can house more than 5000 people at resorts and camps.
Industry Minister Karen Andrews and Health Minister Greg Hunt held a phone hook-up with executives from medical device company ResMed on Saturday to discuss ways to ramp up its production of ventilators in Australia.
Founded by biomedical engineer Peter Farrell in Sydney in 1989, ResMed is now headquartered in California but has manufacturing lines in Australia to make sleep apnoea equipment to control breathing.
The government is talking to ResMed about expanding the production lines to make ventilators for patients suffering from the coronavirus.
Ego Pharmaceuticals has increased production of hand sanitiser five-fold over the past month to meet hospital contracts and supply pharmacies with its Aqium product.
Ego managing director Alan Oppenheim said the company would shift to 24-hour production for six days a week and had stopped exports of the key product to meet local demand.
“Our overseas markets are screaming for it but our focus is Australia,” he said.
“We are doing everything we can to ramp up supply even harder.”
With masks in short supply, the government dispatched Australian Defence Force engineers to help Shepparton company Med-Con repair and maintain machines required to increase production of masks.
“Australians should be assured that industry is stepping up to meet the challenges being thrown at us by this virus,” said Ms Andrews.
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