Melbourne quarantine hotels will be transformed into makeshift COVID-19 wards to ease pressure on hospitals amid the spiralling Omicron wave.
The state recorded a further 18 COVID-related deaths and 34,836 new cases on Friday, including 15,440 from rapid antigen tests and 19,396 from PCR tests.
With almost 240,000 active cases across the state, the number of patients battling the virus in hospital has climbed to its highest point of the pandemic.
There are currently 976 people in Victorian hospitals with COVID-19, up 23 from Thursday, including 112 in intensive care. Thirty of those are on a ventilator.
In response, acting Health Minister James Merlino has announced quarantine hotels The Pullman on Swanston in the CBD and Mantra at Epping, in the city’s outer north, will be converted into “medi-hotels”.
COVID-infected patients nearing the end of their hospital stay who require lower-level treatment will be transferred to the hotels and cared for by hospital-in-the-home teams until they are able to be discharged.
Easing the pressure
Mr Merlino described the move as a “sensible next step” to give local hospitals an extra buffer.
“This will alleviate some of the pressure,” he told reporters on Friday.
Emma Cassar, the head of Victoria’s dedicated quarantine agency, said the first of up to 300 patients would start arriving at the hotels from Monday.
Infection control procedures and ventilation have been improved since an inquiry found COVID-19 spread from hotel quarantine into the community in 2020, setting in motion the state’s deadly second wave and 112-day lockdown.
Another snap lockdown in February 2021 was also sparked by a hotel quarantine leak.
“Every room has an air purifier and indeed the corridors for those hotels,” Ms Cassar said.
She said Victoria’s $200 million purpose-built quarantine facility at Mickleham is expected to open 500 beds in mid to late February after systems are tested. The site has been largely funded by the federal government but will be operated by the state.
Mr Merlino said half of ICU patients come from the unvaccinated six per cent of the state’s 6.5 million population, and 60 per cent of deaths are unvaccinated people over 50.
Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said the medi-hotel program proved the government has failed to prepare hospitals for the pandemic.
“This government has no plan. It’s so reactive,” she said, calling for modelling of the latest outbreak to be made public.
The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Victorian branch has welcomed the move, saying it will free up hospital beds and ease the pressure on the nurses.
“Even if the effect is things do not get worse, that is something right now,” Acting Secretary Paul Gilbert said.
He said between 5000 to 7000 nurses and midwives – or about five per cent of the total workforce – are being furloughed daily having either contracted COVID-19 or as close contacts of positive cases.
Tennis tests by the thousand
Meanwhile, the Australian Open is copping flak beyond the Novak Djokovic visa saga after it emerged the tournament is using thousands of rapid tests on players, support staff and media amid widespread shortages.
Mr Merlino said the state government hadn’t provided Tennis Australia with a reported haul of 40,000 RATs to use throughout the tournament. Rather, organisers obtained the stock themselves.
Victorian workers are still struggling to get their hands on the tests ahead of isolation rules in the state being broadened from midnight on Tuesday.