Health care workers and patients are bearing the brunt of Papua New Guinea’s worsening COVID-19 situation with many hospitals operating on a skeleton staff.

A recent surge in COVID-19 cases led to infection rates tripling during March, with more than 7,600 cases now confirmed in the country. As unprecedented numbers of people present to hospitals with symptoms, the country’s health facilities have reached a tipping point.

Henry Ivarature, Pacific Fellow at the Australian National University, said the number of active cases in PNG, Australia’s closest neighbour, are overwhelming hospitals.

“Hospital wards are at capacity and are no longer able to isolate and treat patients effectively – they have become breeding grounds for community transmission,” Dr Ivarature said.

“About 40 per cent of mothers in labour are returning positive COVID-19 test results. With figures like that it is impossible to isolate patients and ensure safety within hospitals,” Dr Ivarature said.

At Port Moresby General, the largest hospital in the nation, 114 health workers have now tested positive for COVID-19. With a significant portion of health workers on sick leave, the hospital has been forced to scale-down the number of services it provides. In Lae, PNG’s second biggest city, the local hospital suspended all services last week.

The Australian government has responded to the spike in cases in its northern neighbour, sending 8,000 AstraZeneca vaccines to inoculate frontline health workers, as well as deploying an AUSMAT team and shipping personal protective equipment to bolster hospital supplies.

Meg Keen, Director of the Australia Pacific Security College, an initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has welcomed the response, but says more is required.

“A core priority must be protecting frontline workers to treat the exponentially growing spread of COVID-19 but that does not alleviate the urgent need for greater community vaccination, education and systems strengthening so the health care system is not overwhelmed to the point of collapse,” Professor Keen said.

Vaccinations have begun this week, with Prime Minister Marape – and his brothers – among the first to receive the jabs.

Health Minister Jelta Wong identified the immediate challenge ahead of the country as getting enough health workers their shots in order to safely operate the health system.

Main picture is of Dr Henry Ivarature. (Photo: Hugh McClure)