NSW recruiting nurses from interstate and overseas to cope with rising Covid cases in hospitals

New South Wales is turning to other states and overseas to recruit nurses to help cope with the predicted peak in Covid cases requiring hospitalisation next month, with some regional hospitals offering generous travel and pay incentives.

Guardian Australia understands the NSW health department is in discussions with the commonwealth about fast-tracking the credentialing of overseas qualifications to make it easier for foreign nurses to start work.

Intensive care and emergency department nurses are understood to be most in demand.

Sydney hospitals plan to abandon their nurse-to-patient ratios in ICU as pressure grows and the NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has acknowledged the hospital system will become “technically overwhelmed” in mid-October.

NSW’s private hospital workforce and bed capacity has already been incorporated into the public Covid response in recent weeks, and recently retired nurses have been recalled and other nurses upskilled for ICU work.

A NSW Health spokesman confirmed “the commonwealth is working closely with NSW Health to lend support in this endeavour, particularly as the state approaches the expected peak hospitalisation period”.

Hospitals are also trying to bolster their workforce by offering short-term contracts to interstate nurses. Western NSW local health district – which takes in Dubbo and is the region with the highest Covid numbers outside of greater Sydney – has posted job ads targeting nurses in Queensland and Western Australia.

Despite being for NSW facilities, the ads are labelled as Brisbane and Perth jobs, so they show up when Queensland and WA nurses search for local positions.

The “surge short-term” contracts offer weekly bonuses of up to $500 and travel costs, including accommodation, meals and hotel quarantine, if required, upon return to their home states.

Nurses would be asked to work in hospitals in the region, as well as deliver care in residents’ homes, so that permanent staff can “get the breaks and rest that they need”, according to the ad.

“Be part of the team fighting Covid – we need you in Western NSW Local Health District,” the ad says.

NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association general secretary Brett Holmes, said “they’re offering incentives we’ve never seen before”.

Holmes said he hopes the western NSW health district is “able to find nurses who are not already engaged caring for Covid patients”, noting that “most [of the] casual workforce in Sydney” has already been brought into the health system in the state’s capital.

“We welcome every effort being made by western NSW to supplement their workforce. We know that maintaining sufficient workforce in rural and regional NSW is always a challenge and the additional burdens of Covid on rural hospitals are very concerning,” Holmes said.

There have been 1,080 Covid cases in western NSW since the virus spread there from Sydney in early August, with further cases in the adjacent far west NSW health district, where more than one-in-six residents in the majority-Indigenous Wilcannia have become infected.

There are currently 14 people hospitalised in western NSW with Covid, however more than 230 Covid patients are also receiving medical care in their homes to minimise the risk of exposure in the region’s health facilities.

The majority of hospital pressure in the state is in Sydney, particularly in hospitals in the west and south-west of the city. Across NSW, there are 1,266 Covid patients in hospital, with 244 in intensive care and 118 of those on ventilators. Thousands more are being treated in their homes to avoid further exposure.

Western NSW LHD’s recruitment drive follows recent instances of hospital patients in the region being transferred to Sydney so they can receive specialist care that could not be delivered in Dubbo hospital’s ICU.

ICU nurses who spoke to Guardian Australia warned nurse-to-patient ratios in non-Covid ICUs were not being met throughout August, and reported increasing sedative doses to “knock patients out” in order to manage nurses’ workload.

Do you know more about how NSW hospitals are responding to Covid pressure? Contact elias.visontay@theguardian.com. You can remain anonymous.

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