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Coronavirus ward created to treat COVID-19 patients at Geelong hospital sits empty as managers hail its success

ABC NEWS logo ABC NEWS 8/05/2020 Steven Schubert

On the top two floors of a recently abandoned building in Victoria's second-largest city, 50 hospital beds sit empty, for now.

The doctors, nurses and health bureaucrats who hastily prepared them are not bothered that they so far haven't been used by a single patient.

"For us this is success," Geelong-based Barwon Health Service chief executive Frances Diver said.

"Not having this building occupied for us is a success."

Ms Diver and her team have repurposed the old Geelong Private Hospital, which was decommissioned in May 2018, to become a dedicated ward for patients suffering from COVID-19.

Pictures: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak around the world

The building, known as Baxter House, is no stranger to reinvention — in another previous life it was the public hospital's main maternity ward, where a generation of children were born.

It sits directly across the road from the main public hospital, University Hospital Geelong.

This year, staff have worked around the clock to prepare it for an expected wave of coronavirus patients.

"I feel like we've worked a bit of magic to get prepared for whatever may come," Ms Diver said.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience this has been a process of intensive planning and preparation."

a sign on the side of a building: Building B at University Hospital Geelong was transformed into a coronavirus clinic. (ABC News: Steven Schubert) © ABC News: Steven Schubert Building B at University Hospital Geelong was transformed into a coronavirus clinic. (ABC News: Steven Schubert) Hospital confident it can cope with surge

When politicians and health experts talked about flattening the curve to buy health workers time, this scenario is exactly what they were talking about.

It allowed hospitals to prepare for what was expected to be an overwhelming public health emergency.

The fact that it never eventuated, at least not yet, is a welcome, if unexpected, result.

"We're planning for the worst and hoping for the best," Ms Diver said.

"We're fortunate that we've had all of this time because the public health measure that have been put in place are working.

"That's fantastic for everybody. It means we're now really well organised in terms of our staff training, our PPE [personal protective equipment], our capacity planning, so I feel really confident we're well placed to address any surge that may come."

But with the dramatic drop in new cases surprising most health professionals, and no sign yet of a second wave of infections, the building stands idle.

How we got to a hospital with no patients

The announcement that the old Geelong Private Hospital would be recommissioned came on March 19, around the peak of the toilet-paper-hoarding frenzy.

The day before, Prime Minister Scott Morrison had a declared "human biosecurity emergency", the first time such a term had ever been used by an Australian leader, and the previous week the World Health Organisation had declared the outbreak a global pandemic.

The number of people worldwide who had died from COVID-19 was closing in on 10,000 and almost a quarter of a million people had contracted the disease.

The experts were saying it was only the beginning.

The ABC's Dr Norman Swan tweeted that no "magic fairy" was going to bring the numbers down and he feared without intervention there could be 80,000 cases by the end of the month.

Australia watched as the dreaded curve of infections increased steeply.

The previous day the number of new infections hit triple figures for the first time.

Five days later the largest number of new cases in a single day, 424, would be recorded.

The Australian border had been shut to non-citizens and the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings had been dropped from 500 to 100.

Things were escalating quickly, and it wasn't yet clear which way Australia's pandemic was going to go.

An $8 million project

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews gave $8 million to Barwon Health, as part of a broader $437 million emergency injection to the state's healthcare system.

While the top two floors of the five-storey building, now called building B, were being transformed into hospital wards for coronavirus patients, the ground floor was hastily set up as a clinic for people who needed to get tested.

Teams of doctors and nurses waited for people with coronavirus symptoms to be referred by their GP to receive a nasal swab.

That clinic was designed to take the workload off the existing emergency department and allow it to focus on the usual cases of broken arms and road trauma.

Barwon Health's infectious disease department director Eugene Athan said as the coronavirus outbreak unfolded, the hospital started implementing a plan it developed back in 2009, when the world was facing a different disease, H1N1, or swine flu.

"We've been preparing for the possibility of a large scale epidemic for many months," he said.

"What we have seen instead is a small trickle of cases and a major slowdown in new cases."

But there is no sense among the architects of the response that this has been a waste of time, money or effort.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said it was important to create extra capacity in the health system.

"If we ease off on the restrictions there is a risk we could have further outbreaks," Ms Mikakos said.

"I'm happy to be criticised, when this is all over, of having overprepared our health system.

"There were many jurisdictions around the world who were caught short because they had a massive demand on their hospitals and they weren't able to find the ventilators, the ICU beds, the doctors, the nurses — we want to make sure that is not us in Victoria."

Waiting for a second wave

Professor Athan said the health service had been able to use the time bought by strict social-distancing restrictions to procure the right amount of personal protective equipment, after global shortages led to inflated prices and an international scramble to secure supplies.

The health service might still have a need for its new equipment and additional capacity.

"There may well be a second wave of infections," Professor Athan said.

"We know that most Australians have not had exposure to COVID-19 and therefore are still at risk of infection in the future."

Ms Diver said some people would be critical of the response to the global pandemic, regardless of the results.

"There's a bit of a risk, people say 'we did all these social-distancing measures and nothing happened'. That was the point, we didn't want there to be a surge in demand," Ms Diver said.

"That is a tricky message because we want people to understand that we have been successful, and the fact that we're not seeing the kinds of things that have been experienced in New York, Spain, France and the UK, we're in an incredibly fortunate position."

For now, the health service will continue testing all its own staff, including people who show no symptoms, and take part in a broader push to dramatically increase the number of tests carried out in the community.

And the healthcare workers staffing the new coronavirus clinic will maintain their vigil, knowing the hospital beds above will be ready and waiting.

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