Four code yellow warnings in North Queensland hospitals ‘unprecedented, really dangerous’

Earlier this week, four major hospitals in northern Queensland sounded a simultaneous code yellow alert, signaling major capacity problems in the public health systems of Cairns, Townsville, Mackay and Mount Isa.

The representative union Together Queensland said there were 280 presentations for Cairns Hospital on Tuesday, just before its busiest day on record, prompting the agency to call its 15th code yellow for the year.

Further west, Mount Isa also had to postpone its elective surgeries and procedures.

The Australasian College of Emergency Medicine said it was not unusual for the western center, which spends about 40 percent of its time in code yellow.

Code yellow in Cairns and Mount Isa is still in effect.

Staff shortages due to domestic and international border closures have long been a problem in regional areas, but concerns have now been raised about how the regional health system will cope if a COVID-19 outbreak occurs.

Capacity an ‘absolutely critical point’

Cairns Hospital anesthetist Dr. Sandy Donald, senior vice president of Together Queensland, said he had never seen all four hospitals shouting code yellow at the same time.

He said authorities should be particularly concerned as coronavirus outbreaks are not currently affecting the regions.

dr. Sandy Donald said Tuesday’s code yellow was the 15th called at Cairns Hospital this year.(

ABC News: Jemima Burt


“I think it’s right to be very concerned about what would happen in regional Queensland if we got delta dispersion.

“Delta can spread quickly and these regional hospitals are the referral centers for many very vulnerable remote communities struggling with vaccine hesitation.”

He said more investment is needed in community sectors, such as housing and aged care, to increase capacity in hospitals.

‘Unprecedented and dangerous’

The president of the College for Emergency Medicine, Dr. John Bonning, said members have told him that patients have died due to delays.

“In hospitals where people spend long periods of time, patients spend extended periods in the emergency department with access block… patients have died due to delays in care delivery, we have heard from members on the ground,” he said.

No further details were given about the circumstances of the deaths and Queensland Health has been contacted to comment on this allegation.

A man in a pink, white and green shirt with flowers on it with a blurred background.
John Bonning described the capacity problems in North Queensland as “unprecedented and really, really dangerous”.(

Provided: Australasian College for Emergency Medicine


He said there were reports in Mount Isa that patients had waited days for treatment in the emergency department.

Mr Bonning also called for more resources for elderly care and care for the disabled.

“We’re not necessarily clamoring for more resources in the emergency department, we need more resources across the system,” he said.

“If such a patient stays in the hospital for a month, which happens, that’s 10 to 15 acute patients who don’t have access to that bed.”

Low vaccination rates

Regional Queensland was unveiled this week lagged far behind the rest of the country in terms of vaccination coverage.

Communities in remote regions such as Cape York and Torres Strait have faced significant hesitation to get vaccines, with some communities seeing less than a third of their eligible populations roll up their sleeves.

Cairns, Townsville and Mount Isa are referral hospitals for those communities, which worries Dr. Bonning.

“It is very concerning that we have relatively low vaccination rates in Queensland and the virus – it’s not a question of if, but when it will arrive in Queensland.”

Queensland Health has been contacted for comment.

Prime Minister says not just a problem in Queensland

Today, Queensland Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk and Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said there was equal pressure on health systems across the country.

“This is not a unique problem for Queensland,” the prime minister told reporters this morning.

Ms D’Ath acknowledged that the health system has been under additional pressure since the start of the pandemic.

“Our health professionals are busy running our hospitals, which are seeing a significant increase in ambulance calls and ED presentations, as well as conducting testing, conducting vaccination and managing hotel quarantine,” she said.

The health minister said work had been done with regions of concern to address ramping.

“We’ve seen some improvements in areas,” said Ms D’Ath.

“We have an additional $163 million for the purchase of beds, both in the public and private systems.”

Hospitals respond

Michelle Garner, the executive director of nursing, obstetrics and clinical management at Mount Isa Base Hospital, rejected the claim that it spends 40 percent of its time in code yellow.

“In Mount Isa, we would ‘respond yellow’…not every day, but certainly often enough,” she said.

“It really means we’re pretty tight on efficiency… how we transfer people coming through our emergency department, how we selectively admit people, and how we fire.

The code marked yellow at Townsville University Hospital was deactivated this morning.

In a statement, Kieran Keyes, chief executive of Townsville Hospital and Health Service, said the statement was triggered due to high demand for acute admissions, combined with a large number of patients already in hospital.

“A code yellow is cited as a means of ensuring there is a hospital-wide approach to responding to acute capacity constraints,” he said.

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