Small regional hospitals have been left fatigued by the Omicron COVID-19 strain as it continues to spread throughout the nation, leaving the facilities to deal with staff shortages and exhaustion.
But as rapid-antigen tests slowly become more available in regional areas, the pressure of PCR testing centres has reduced, offering these smaller hospitals a slight reprieve.
Castlemaine Health executive director of clinical and aged care Dianne Senior said their health service was losing an average of 12 staff members a day to illness or isolation.
"Our staff are tired, they're exhausted," Ms Senior said.
"We have fantastic staff, but because we have got 130 aged-care beds, it makes it quite a bit more difficult.
"Staff are back in N-95 masks and we have had a lot of vaccinations. Sixty per cent of staff (have had) boosters done."
But Ms Senior said the efforts of the hospital's casual bank of support staff, who had been more than willing to assist when the facility was struck down with shortages, had been incredible.
"We've got a robust casual bank and managed to replace 80 per cent of shifts with people from the casual staff bank," she explained.
"Staff numbers are improving. Now my concern is that staff need breaks, so we are trying to focus on their well-being and ensuring people are okay."
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Ms Senior said the use of rapid-antigen tests had reduced pressure on staff in recent days.
"We've had a new shipment of RATs come in today, which is good," she said.
"We are managing swabbing but that has reduced a bit now and is taking pressure off staff.
"Staff were being utilised to vaccinate, do PCR swabbing and are managing extremely well but it is tiring.
"The RATs made a big difference. We were seeing 300 or 400 PCR tests each day and that has dropped to 200 and below."
Maryborough District Health Service chief executive Nickola Allan echoed Ms Senior's comments on how the increased availability of rapid antigen tests would ease the pressure staff were feeling, but said they were lucky enough to be largely unaffected by staff shortages.
"We have been able to work through guidelines and have seen from staff - who are amazing - there is a willingness to respond, pick up shifts, flex rosters and do whatever else they have to do to support the community and, in particular the residents in aged care," she said.
The hospital's PCR testing centres have also seen a scale back in the last week with an increasing availability of rapid antigen tests.
"(Testing queues) were sitting about 30 over the last couple of days but at the peak there were in excess 150 or 160 people (each day)," Mrs Allan said.
Mrs Allan said, thankfully, not many Central Goldfields Shire coronavirus patients had required hospitalisation.
"We work closely with the Grampians public health unit to manage patients through COVID-care pathways and check in daily to see how people are managing symptoms," she said.
"If they need to be escalated to a public health unit...it depends on where there are beds available. But we haven't had many that needed to be escalated.
"This is the strength of the (central Victoria) region and system. What has come out of the pandemic as a whole is health services with the ability to support each other."
Ms Senior said the support of Bendigo Health had been invaluable for Castlemaine doctors and nurses.
Particularly, around it's COVID-at-home program where staff monitor COVID-positive people in their homes and liaise with the public health unit in Bendigo.
"This has been constantly hard, trying to keep up with the latest directions and information," she said.
"Communication is a massive issue but we have kept on top of it. We really value the support from Bendigo Health and the way we have worked as a region. It has been a really positive thing."
Mrs Allan said everyone should be proud of how hard health services staff members have worked during the pandemic.
"It is a rapidly changing environment but what it showed was all the plans we had in place, sitting and waiting, were able to be flicked into gear," she said. "They were well embedded.
"What we have seen over this COVID period is the ability (of health services) to adapt. I am so incredibly proud of the staff, how hard they work and how they have adapted."
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