'Different story': What's behind NSW's rising Covid hospitalisations?

·News Editor
·4-min read

The increasingly overwhelmed healthcare system in NSW and the lack of granular data on Covid cases has prompted speculation over the nature of daily hospitalisation figures and the severity of the Omicron variant.

Data cruncher Juliette O'Brien has tried to piece together a clearer picture of what's behind the state's record Covid hospitalisations, which hit 1,491 on Wednesday.

A small NSW Health study found some patients counted in the Covid-19 numbers were actually admitted to hospital for completely different reasons, like childbirth or broken bones.

State Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a snapshot of the initial study suggested on one day as many as 50 per cent of people in the hospitalisation data presented for non-Covid reasons – a number that was quickly reported.

A paramedic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, Australia on December 29 as hospitalisations began to mount. Source: Getty/Brent Lewin
A paramedic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, Australia on December 29 as hospitalisations began to mount. Source: Getty/Brent Lewin

As a data journalist and operator of covid19data.com.au, Ms O'Brien says she is perennially suspicious of figures that seem "possibly cherry-picked" and sought to do her own digging.

She asked clinicians from four major hospitals for an analysis of a random sample of currently admitted Covid patients. Fortunately two were able to help, despite rules against providing such information to media or the public.

"I was only able to do that because I’ve been working on this for so long and I have relationships there. There’s trust," she told Yahoo News Australia.

"These are working clinicians, one of whom stayed back after working a very long day ... They thought that the severity of what was happening was being downplayed."

Far from the 40 to 50 per cent figure suggested by the health minister, one clinician expected the number to be closer to 10 to 15 per cent.

Ultimately, Ms O'Brien was provided with two random samples from hospitals in NSW. The first of just 21 patients and the second constituting 101 patients with Covid.

The clinicians were simply looking at their files and "making an assessment" but the surreptitious data mining told a "different story", according to Ms O'Brien.

It showed 76 to 80 per cent of the randomly chosen patients had been admitted for Covid, while 20 to 24 per cent had been admitted for other reasons, but had Covid. That's about half the rate indicated by Mr Hazzard.

NSW Health has been contacted by Yahoo News regarding its patient analysis and reporting of Covid hospitalisation data.

A spokesperson has previously said with the spread of Omicron it is unsurprising that patients admitted for other reasons will be found to have Covid as well.

Better data needed as PM calls for change to hospital definition

Government data on Covid varies between different Australian states and territories but ultimately delivers a more shallow public understanding compared to what's seen in other countries, such as the UK.

"There have been multiple times when I thought we should just go around the government and get the data ourselves," Ms O'Brien said.

She points to the UK where much more detail is provided, including hospital breakdowns of bed use by acuity, capacity, primary diagnosis and more.

"They are so sophisticated in the data that they release," she said. "The UK's NHS (National Health Service) and the [Australian] federal government’s data release in like night and day, there is no comparison."

Meanwhile Prime Minister Scott Morrison is pushing for a change to what defines a Covid hospitalisation.

"There are people being counted as being in hospital for Covid. They didn‘t go there for Covid. They went there for some other reason," he said Monday on Channel Nine's Today program.

"So we need to get a standard definition on that because these are the key things we have to track now."

Scott Morrison says the definition of hospitalisation needs to change. Source: Getty/Darrian Traynor
Scott Morrison says the definition of hospitalisation needs to change. Source: Getty/Darrian Traynor

Push to receive 'the real data'

Since starting her Covid-19 data tracking website, Ms O'Brien says there has been a "hunger" for quality coronavirus data from Australia's Covid-obsessed public.

"Millions have used my little website," she said. "And some have even donated ... Since then I've been locked in."

Ms O'Brien notes that disentangling Covid hospital information isn't easy. She admits the data sets which she personally sourced from clinicians aren't perfect, but hopes it will help instigate better data collection and delivery from state and federal governments.

"I'm using it to try to push for us to receive the real data," she said.

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