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NSW mulls free flu shots as ‘horror season’ puts hospitals under strain

NSW is considering offering free flu vaccines amid a dramatic surge in flu cases while the COVID-19 pandemic continues putting NSW hospitals under significant pressure.

Emergency department presentations for flu have increased as staff continue to fall victim to the viruses.

About 2,000 workers are absent from hospitals on an average day.

“It is absolutely crucial that you go and get your flu vaccine as soon as possible,” he said.
There have been 14,812 reported flu cases and 3,349 have attended emergency departments with influenza-like illnesses in NSW this year, a third of them in the past week.

More than 8000 cases of COVID were reported on Tuesday, with 1234 people in hospital with the virus, 38 of them in ICU.

The flu brought more than 1,100 people to emergency departments last week, with 150 admitted to hospital and six admitted to critical care units.

Health Secretary Susan Pearce said the double whammy of a flu resurgence in an unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic put emergency departments “under significant pressure”.

It also comes as the health system tries to get on top of a backlog in elective surgeries.

“Please do not call triple zero or attend emergency departments for non-urgent issues,” she said.

“We are urging the community to support us during this challenging period by making sure those who need emergency medical care can receive it by saving ambulances and emergency departments for saving lives,” she said.

Anyone unsure whether they should go to hospital should visit or call Healthdirect on 1800 022 222.
Chief pediatrician Matt O’Meara said children aged six months to five years were particularly vulnerable to flu, with at least 10 per cent of youngsters in hospital with the virus so sick they needed intensive care.

Of the 165 children under five years old that presented to hospitals with a flu-like illness last week, 27 were admitted.

“Parents can reduce the risk of that happening just by getting their child vaccinated,” Dr O’Meara said.

About 11 per cent of children under five in NSW have been vaccinated and about 51 per cent of people aged 65 and over.

Both groups are eligible for free vaccines, as are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders of any age over six months, as well as people who have serious medical conditions or are pregnant.

NSW Health public health pathology director Dominic Dwyer told news agency AAP it was important to reduce any barrier to obtaining a vaccine in order to increase uptake.

“That can be things like availability of a vaccine, locations where you can get vaccinations, the cost of vaccinations, all of those sorts of things,” Professor Dwyer said.

Queensland announced on Monday it would provide free vaccines for all for a month.

“That’s an example of strategies you can take to try and increase vaccination rates … you need a combination of approaches to get people vaccinated,” Prof Dwyer said.

Free flu vaccines in Queensland

The Queensland state government announced on Monday it was offering free vaccines to head off a projected rise in hospitalisations from an outbreak of influenza A, which reached 4,282 cases on Monday.

Ten people are in intensive care and 151 are in hospital for the acute form of flu, which hasn’t broken out in Queensland for five years.

Greens call for free flu vaccines in South Australia

In South Australia, the Greens have called on the state government to make the flu vaccine free for everyone amid a surge in cases.

Greens upper house MP Robert Simms said the state should follow Queensland’s lead to help limit the spread of influenza over winter.

“It seems the flu season is back with a vengeance. Numbers are surging and it’s vital SA does everything we can to curb the spread,” Mr Simms said.

“Given the huge health and economic implications of a spread of the flu, it makes sense to follow Queensland’s example.

“While many workplaces make the vaccine available and it is free for some vulnerable groups, we can’t risk South Australians falling through the cracks.”

SA Health said there had been 727 flu notifications between 1 January and 14 May this year, compared to 12 cases for the same period last year.