Australia is seeing unprecedented panic and anxiety as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread.
There’s also plenty of confusion and the mish-mash of messages, from the very top down, is not helping the situation.
The New South Wales Health Minister urged people two weeks ago to stop shaking hands, only to be slapped down by the Federal Chief Medical Officer who said it was fine.
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Fast forward a couple of days, and sure enough, handshaking was now out for everyone.
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer was criticised after advising people to stock up on two weeks worth of groceries in case they needed to self-isolate, contrary to Federal advice.
Queensland’s Chief Health Officer advised the same thing a couple of weeks ago but that received less attention.
Then we had Scott Morrison announce a ban on mass gatherings but then revealed he’d still be going to the footy ahead of the ban.
Needless to say, the PM quickly changed his mind when he realised how bad a look it would have been.
I’ve just returned from a quick break in Bali but made it home before the Government’s mandatory self-isolation period kicked in.
In the short week I was away the virus situation has gone to a whole new level, but I didn’t think twice about not returning to work on Monday, even after developing a slight sore throat and a mild cough on the weekend (nothing unusual after a trip to Bali).
But after discussions with the boss it was decided I should probably stay away from the office for the time being and get some medical advice. We can’t risk having to completely shut down.
According to the Queensland Health website, I fit the criteria for someone who should get tested. Sore throat, cough and had been overseas.
Just to be completely sure, I rang the Queensland Health hotline and was told that I did indeed fit the criteria.
(For the record anyone who has been overseas in the last 14 days or has been in contact with a confirmed case AND develops a fever, sore throat, cough or shortness of breath is being advised to get tested.)
The advice was to call my GP to get tested instead of just turning up to a clinic.
But as I’ve since discovered, next to no GPs, if any, are actually doing any testing.
After a quick chat with the receptionist at my local GP clinic, she told me my GP would call me back when he had a moment to arrange a form to go and get tested.
A form? I need a form now?
A few hours later and my GP did eventually call.
After explaining my symptoms and travel history he told me that testing wasn’t necessary and I should just self-isolate for two weeks, even though I arrived home before the Government’s mandatory isolation came into effect.
The confusion was only offset by the fear of telling my boss I definitely wasn’t coming back to work anytime soon.
Ten minutes later, my GP calls me back to tell me, “yes, you should go and get tested.”
“So what about this form I supposedly need?” I asked him.
*Narrator: “There is no form.”
So off I go to the Gold Coast University Hospital which is a hive of activity as usual.
A cheerful young nurse greeted me at the entrance to emergency where I again explained my symptoms and travel history.
“Oh you don’t really need to get tested”, she assured me.
Confusion growing even more, I pointed out she was sitting in front of a large sign that listed Indonesia as one of the ‘at risk’ countries but she said that list was old.
Was Indonesia all of a sudden ok? I highly doubt that.
After a bit of a debate she eventually gave me a mask and told me to head upstairs to the fever clinic and they would make the final call about whether or not I should get tested.
Sure enough, I got tested (which by the way is not pleasant).
While I sat there in the fever clinic waiting for a swab up my nose, countless more people flocked to the clinic.
But most were turned away because they didn’t fit the criteria. The system simply can’t test everyone at the moment.
Some of those people had symptoms but hadn’t travelled overseas or been in contact with any confirmed cases. Others had no symptoms but insisted they be tested anyway.
The calm triage nurses would assure them they didn’t need to be tested, a message they had to deliver to some people over and over again until they gave up and left.
So what advice had these people been given? And how did they get past the cheerful nurse at the front door?
You must feel for those who have symptoms but don’t meet the criteria for testing. For some, the worry must be unbearable.
I’ve heard several stories of people being turned away or sent home from work because they have symptoms but don’t meet the criteria for testing so have no way of assuring their employer that they don’t have coronavirus.
I even had one friend who was forced to sleep at Brisbane Airport after returning from overseas because his housemate refused to let him inside the house, despite having no symptoms at all.
The panic and fear is palpable, but simply telling people they are not at risk or only low risk doesn’t seem to be cutting it.
Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles today urged everyone to make sure they were disseminating ‘accurate’ information about the virus.
That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t seem to be getting through anyway.
A good start would be for everyone, from the PM, State Health Officers, GPs and frontline staff, to all be singing from the same songsheet. The mixed messages are only increasing people’s anxiety and fears, not to mention taking up the valuable time of our medical professionals.
While I remain in self-isolation waiting for my results, I will take my hat off to the staff at the GCUH fever clinic.
Their task of constantly taking temperatures and swabs and dealing with anxious and paranoid people must be pretty monotonous. But they’re doing it professionally and patiently in a time when the world could do with a bit of their calmness and commonsense.
If you need some clear advice about what to do and what to look out for, check out this video from Gold Coast Health: