Doctors, nurses and paramedics are having to cut short their holidays to ensure there are enough people to care for Covid-19 patients in Netcare and Mediclinic hospitals.
Meanwhile, staff at Life Healthcare hospitals have told their bosses they will return to the frontline if they need to.
Dr Charl van Loggerenberg, general manager of emergency medicine at Life Healthcare, said: “Our employees, under enormous stress and relentless pressure for most of this year, have given of themselves to care for patients and continue to do so, being willing to return from leave if necessary.
“However, recall from leave is a last resort as staff need the recuperation time.”
On Monday, specialists working in intensive care units at St Anne’s Hospital and Mediclinic in Pietermaritzburg and at Life Hilton revealed they were caring for 225 of the sickest Covid-19 patients.
This is an increase from the 160 people that teams from Jones, Bhagwan and Partners, working under the leadership of Professor Reitze Rodseth, were looking after last week.
uMgungundlovu district, which includes Pietermaritzburg, Hilton and Howick, has been declared a hotspot for coronavirus infections in KwaZulu-Natal.
On Tuesday, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize warned that hospitals were filling up quickly, while paramedics in the province are saying they have to wait between two and three hours to try and get patients admitted.
IPSS Medical Rescue operations director Paul Herbst said: “Every single patient we are doing now is [Covid-19] positive respiratory distress.
“And it is not been like the first wave where it was adult severely elderly patients, these are young fit people.”
Dr Richard Friedland, chief executive officer of Netcare, said the number of patients currently being admitted to the group’s hospitals far exceeded that in the first wave of the pandemic.
This was putting a massive strain on staff and resources and putting healthcare workers in the terrible position of having to choose which patients needed treatment the most.
“While we will always endeavour to provide care to patients arriving at our facilities,” Friedland said, “the increased demand will require us to make decisions regarding access to certain treatment modalities.
“Where possible, we will seek to transfer patients, once stabilised, to one of our other hospitals, should they have capacity.
“Our clinicians will make all of these decisions based on the availability of resources and their best clinical judgment. We fully support them in this difficult task and complex decision-making process.”
His comments were echoed by Dr Gerrit de Villiers, group general manager: clinical performance at Mediclinic International, who said they were having to divert patients from hospitals “experiencing high volumes of patients within the ICU and high care units”.
He also warned that in cases where hospitals were overwhelmed, some levels of high-care treatment, and access to ventilators and certain oxygen treatments would not be available to everyone.
“Mediclinic has already increased the available number of beds to assist Covid-19 patients,” he said, “we have reallocated key resources to hotspots, and we have provided additional training to upskill nursing staff from other units to assist in areas such as ICU and high care.
“Elective [non-emergency] surgery has been cancelled or postponed in some hospitals in surge areas in an effort to create additional capacity in our facilities.”
Meanwhile, critical oxygen supplies needed to treat patients in ICU and high care are being closely monitored by all three hospital groups.
Friedland said Netcare hospitals had substantially increased their oxygen capacity and had made sure staff had adequate supplies of drugs, consumables and personal protective equipment to last them through the second wave.
At Mediclinic they remain in constant contact with suppliers to manage oxygen levels and ensure a continuous supply, De Villiers told The Witness.
“Suppliers are aware of the urgent demand and we have been informed that they have prioritised this from their side. Mediclinic has also sought to provide additional storage facilities where possible, to extend capacity,” he added.
Life Healthcare’s oxygen demands are being met with additional equipment and more frequent replenishment of oxygen capacity by suppliers, Van Loggerenberg said.