Covid surge threatens PNG’s Mt Hagen hospital with ‘closure by Christmas’

Mt Hagen Hospital's isolation unit
Mt Hagen Hospital's isolation unit ... lack of funds and the covid-19 surge put the medical staff under enormous pressure. Image: ICRC

By Rita Peki in Mt Hagen, Papua New Guinea

Two deaths with two patients in critical condition is the status at one of Papua New Guinea’s leading hospitals as the covid-19 pandemic continues to create havoc along with an acute shortage of operational funds.

Mount Hagen Provincial Hospital in Western Highlands Province — owed K1.6 million  (NZ$650,000) by the central government in Waigani — struggles to maintain its ongoing clinical services as well as provide treatment and care to the escalating number of suspected covid-19 cases, said the Highlands Provincial Health Authority.

According to WHPHA acting chief executive officer Jane Holden, the hospital will definitely shut down come Christmas if funding is delayed further.

She said although the hospital was stretched to its limit, it tested 27 positive covid-19 cases in the last four days, bringing the number of new cases since Saturday to 109.

This left only five isolation beds unoccupied out of 20 available isolation beds.

“Two patients died last week and two are critically ill, Holden said.

“Although we cannot get the results for the whole genome sequencing, we must assume we are dealing with the delta variant, given the rapid increase in numbers and severity of their illness.

Funds for two weeks
“We only have enough covid-19 funds to support another two weeks work despite sending a request in late June to the Department of Health.

Holden said if there was no funding, the hospital would shut down its services before Christmas.

“This will commence next week with the closure of consultation clinics for any new patients and the discharge of others over a couple of weeks.

“We will also need to ask patients coming from other provinces to seek support locally rather than come to Mt Hagen Hospital.

“Over the next four to six weeks, beds will be closed as patients are discharged home.

“Further reducing services at the hospital just puts increased pressure on rural health services, and we know that they are also stressed.

“Church Health Services have not had funding support this year either and are under significant pressure as well,” Holden said.

“This is a very difficult time.”

According to statistics from National Control Centre, Papua New Guinea is reporting 1000 new cases a month — an increase of 50 percent, averaging 500 new cases a month.

In the last three weeks, 649 cases were confirmed, with 18 deaths reported in the same period. Of this, one medical doctor had died out of the 53 health workers who tested positive with covid-19.

‘Biggest’ threat to Pacific in century
Meanwhile, in New York, US, Prime Minister James Marape told a Pacific Islands Forum meeting last week that covid-19 presented the biggest threat to the health and wellbeing of Pacific people and the world in more than a century.

He told a virtual PIF Leaders Meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA): “Never before, has the full Forum membership simultaneously been in a crisis wherein members face significant challenges to prepare, respond and mitigate the immediate and associated threats posed by the covid-19 pandemic.”

Marape said a unified collective regional approach to address covid-19 through the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway had ensured countries remained relatively unscathed from the health impacts of covid-19, with six countries still covid-free.

“The emergence of the more transmissible strains of the virus is concerning, with clear evidence that the coping capacity of some of our members’ health systems is struggling to keep up with the rapid spread of the virus,” he said.

“There are some assurances provided through vaccine-powered recovery, however, in places where vaccines are not yet widely available, or in communities where people have not been vaccinated despite availability, the virus could still spread rapidly.

“When forum leaders met last month, we re-emphasised the importance of ensuring the distribution of safe and effective vaccines in the Pacific region and reiterated our call to global leaders to support the equitable and affordable distribution of safe and effective covid-19 treatments and vaccines to all Pacific peoples, facilitate early economic recovery and to call for a WTO TRIPS waiver for covid-19 vaccines.

“We also committed to collectively ensure comprehensive vaccination coverage is achieved for our Pacific peoples by setting a target of 80 percent of the eligible population for the Pacific region subject to country readiness by the first quarter of 2022.”

Rita Peki is a PNG Post-Courier reporter.

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