Some of Wagga's most senior medical professionals have met with the local health district's management to raise concerns over the dire staffing situation affecting hospitals.
It is understood the doctors expressed fears that the unprecedented staff shortages were impacting not just on the health of workers, particularly nurses, but also their ability to care for patients.
The meeting preceded another round of strike action on Thursday when nurses gathered in Wagga to demand improved pay and conditions.
Murrumbidgee Local Health District CEO Jill Ludford confirmed a meeting had taken place with the medical staff councils of Wagga and Griffith on Wednesday.
"We talked about the fact that as a result of COVID, the border closures and now furloughed staff that there had been quite a significant impact on the number of nursing vacancies that we have across the district," she said.
NSW Nurses and Midwives Association Wagga president Amit Gupta said there was more to the health district's staffing issues than simply the pandemic.
"It is just their way of covering themselves," he said. "We have been asking for [nurse to patient] ratios for years. We have been short staffed for so many years. This is nothing new."
According to Mr Gupta, Victoria and Queensland are more attractive destinations for nurses as they offered patient-to-nurse ratios not yet implemented in NSW.
Ms Ludford acknowledged the strain being placed on nurses and said there were currently about 150 vacancies the MLHD's 31 facilities.
"We've seen two years of border closures - state and international - and we've always relied on attracting people from right across Australia and also we use quite a lot of overseas trained nurses," she said.
"Add to that ... families who have got children with COVID or themselves have COVID and they have to go off and be isolated for seven days - it really has a big impact on the workforce."
However, Mr Gupta believed that number to be precisely 212 at the time of this article being published, with 55 at Wagga Base Hospital alone.
A Wagga Base Hospital support staff worker who regularly works in the emergency department has witnessed nursing shortages first-hand. "Nurses don't get many quiet periods," the worker, who did not wish to be named, said.
"When they do get a quiet period, yeah, they get to sit down, but I don't see any of them really say 'OK, this is my lunch break'. If they've got a patient in their bay under their responsibility, they're attentive to that patient the whole time."
The support staff worker has also seen nurses doing double shifts to cover for vacancies or workers who are sick with coronavirus.
"I don't know about you, but I don't want somebody looking at my heart monitor who's been working for 14 hours," they said.
"COVID just adds a different layer on top of what they already do, which is hell busy. I did a little bit of work in the emergency department before COVID, but it's just a different level now."
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Another Wagga Base Hospital support staff member, who also wished to remain anonymous, has detailed a staffing crisis that goes beyond nurses.
"With the night cleaners, we can be up to 10 or 11 short on a 20 person shift. And we're still going to try and get the work done," they said.
"We're doing two positions most of the time, especially the afternoon shift, which is fatiguing a lot of the cleaners to the point where morale has dropped, no one wants to do anything and it just compounds on the problem we've already got with COVID."
Wednesday's meeting with the senior doctors also addressed the fact local doctors are resorting to donating parts of their salary towards an education and professional development fund intended to attract nurses to the region.
"Some individual hospitals have already got some trust funds where people donate towards scholarships for education and training for nurses," Ms Ludford said.
"It was just an idea about we could offer them additional support for going off and getting training and new skills, but again it's not mine to announce and nothing was decided, so I think we need to wait on that one."
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