The country’s frontline health services are straining under the impact of the pandemic.

PORT MORESBY, (SMH) — Local media outlet in Papua New Guinea EMTV reported on Wednesday that six patients who had tested positive to COVID-19 had forcibly discharged themselves from Mt Hagen General Hospital in Western Highlands Province, threatening to harm staff if they refused.

In the capital, where the virus has hit hardest, Port Moresby General Hospital is under such strain it has had to convert two of its four medical wards to COVID-19 isolation and treatment facilities and has already lost 10 per cent of its workforce, or 120 staff, because of the virus, according to its senior gynaecologist, Professor Glen Mola.

He said the hospital, PNG’s largest, had only 10 beds in its intensive care unit.

“We just don’t have the space and the facilities to cope with what’s happening on the ground now,” said Mola, talking to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age from quarantine in Cairns after flying out of PNG on Monday to get the vaccine.

“The problem is all the usual patients keep on coming … the sick kids, the women in labour, car accidents, the knife wounds that just arrives at emergency and at the maternity section.

“By the time we get to 50 per cent [of staff testing positive] we’ll have to close the doors. At that point we can’t carry on with the service. We’ll reach a critical point where we have to close the doors and then there will be absolute chaos of course because people will just keep coming but they’ll be turned away at the gate. Then there will be riots, I tell you.”

Prime Minister James Marape was set to announce the details of an isolation strategy his government has favoured rather than a full lockdown.

PNG had appeared to avoid a major outbreak over the past year. There were only 150 cases recorded in a first wave last August and a makeshift COVID-19 field hospital in an indoor sports centre in Port Moresby was shut for six months before being reopened two weeks ago.

Matt Cannon, chief executive of St John Ambulance PNG, said Australia’s assistance with vaccinating frontline health workers and setting up a new field hospital in Port Moresby to accommodate 196 patients was a welcome relief.

But he admitted his staff were feeling overwhelmed.

“This wave appears much more virulent,” Cannon said. “People appear to be getting much sicker. There hasn’t been any confirmation at this stage that there is a new strain but it is suspected and it is being looked into.

“Getting the virus under control is going to be very difficult here. The vaccine is an important measure but it’s not a standalone measure. It could be months if not a year or more before the vaccine reaches enough of the population to have a significant effect.”

PNG-based Caritas aid worker Diane Unagi said Australia’s vaccines were badly needed but it should go hand-in-hand with a public health campaign to convince people to get vaccinated.

She recently recovered from what she believes was COVID-19, although she has not received results yet despite getting tested three weeks ago.

“There’s not enough testing done and I definitely think the number of deaths being under 30 is not real,” she said. “I think there’s a whole lot more deaths but they’re not counting them because they’re not testing them, said Unagi…. PACNEWS

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