Within the Covid unit: the crisis threatens to overwhelm the largest PNG hospital Papua New Guinea

The emergency department of the largest hospital in the capital of Papua New Guinea is hot, stuffy and full. People sit lined up in front of the front counter and wait for someone to see them.

It is divided into two parts: the front part continues to work as a traditional ambulance, while the back part is now the isolation department of Covid-19 which treats the most serious cases of the virus.

In the Covid-19 insulation department, all 14 beds are full. Doctors and nurses in blue gowns and protective gear move between patients. Their faces were drawn and tired through the visor.

Cases of the virus have risen in Papua New Guinea in the past month, bringing the country’s already stretched healthcare system to its knees.

The country reported 351 new cases on Tuesday, increasing to a total of 4,109, an increase of more than 3,000 in just over a month. But there are concerns that the actual transfer rate is far higher and masked by low testing rates.

Dr Duncan Sengiromo, acting emergency service coordinator, says seven doctors, six nurses and three emergency service assistants are positive for Covid-19 this week and are in isolation.

“However, we work in shifts, given that more of our staff have had positive results and have to go into isolation for 10 days, we have few staff.”

“We’re doing the best we can, but we keep fighting,” he says.

The Covid isolation ward at Port Moresby Hospital does not have enough staff after more than a dozen positive tests this week. Photo: Rebecca Kuku / The Guardian

‘Part of me still thinks it’s a hoax’

There is a huge doubt about the reality of Covid-19 in Papua New Guinea, where misinformation about the virus is widespread.

“Two days ago, I thought Covid-19 wasn’t real,” says one 55-year-old patient in the emergency department, who declined to give his name for fear of being ridiculed.

“I wasn’t sick, I don’t even have asthma, but I had the flu and I mated as usual whenever I got the flu. But it didn’t stop, I soon started having trouble breathing, it got worse and the family took me here where I was positive. ”

The man was given oxygen to help him breathe, but he struggled to sit up in his hospital bed and his daughter had to help him. Patients are allowed one caregiver on the ward, although there are concerns for them because they are masked but not in full protective gear.

“I’m still in shock, part of me still thinks it’s a hoax, but part of me is starting to believe Covid-19 is real,” he says.

The man is interrupted as a woman from across the department calls out that her husband is trying to breathe. Head of the emergency service, dr. Sam Yockopua, urges nurses to increase oxygen supply.

After that, Yockopua says access to oxygen is one of the main concerns for treating patients with Covid-19.

“That is one of the reasons why we need more insulation, because we are completely against home insulation. Covid-19 patients should have an oxygen supply on standby and readily available.

“We need to take them out of their homes and into isolated areas so they too can have access to an oxygen supply,” he says.

Yockopu’s message to people is Covid-19 is real and there are people who get infected on a daily basis.

“People are dying from it, people are afraid of it, we see patients coming every day, we visit them every day and please, our appeal to the public is to adhere to the applied measures.

“The beds are full, as you can see, we have a shortage of manpower, we’re struggling, so listen to the authorities because Covid-19 is very real,” he says.

A Polish hospital is being set up at the Taurama water center to pick up some of the cargo from Port Moresby General Hospital
A Polish hospital being set up at the Taurama Water Center to pick up some of the cargo from Port Moresby General Hospital. Photo: Rebecca Kuku / The Guardian

The isolation center at Port Moresby General Hospital and the 45-bed Rita Flynn isolation unit are full, but there are hopes that the Polish hospital, which will be set up at the Taurama water center, will help accept part of the burden.

Taurama Field Hospital, funded by Australia and other partners, will have about 300 beds and will be managed by the local hospital administration and the St. John.

Executive Director of Ambulance St. John, Matt Cannon, says they are doing final on-site checks and will begin receiving 30 to 40 patients by Friday.

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