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This photo taken on February 16, 2020 shows medical staff members treating a patient infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT

Australia’s response to coronavirus putting people at risk: RACGP President

Australia’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has been criticised by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP). Its president, Dr Harry Nespolon, said the lack of government planning is “risking people’s health”.

The RACGP is urging the government to develop a national plan to deal with potential pandemics and said the recent emergence of COVID-19 has revealed failures in the public health response.

“Australia needs to implement a national plan for dealing with potential pandemics. This isn’t the first and won’t be the last – if we don’t address these problems now, we’re risking people’s health,” Dr Nespolon.

“While we have a national plan for pandemic influenza, it has not been implemented. Not implementing a plan is as good as not having a plan.”

Dr Nespolon points to the confusion surrounding which type of masks are appropriate for GPs to wear as one of many failures of communication between states and territories.

“We are also getting different advice from the states and territories on the tests for coronavirus and who should be taking them – should they be done by a GP in a clinic or should they be done in a hospital in a negative pressure room?

“So, at a time when GPs are on heightened alert and may be seeing more patients than usual, we have the extra burden of needing to call around to various health agencies to work out what the current advice is.

“It has taken too long for state health agencies to update their advice in line with the federal advice. GPs have faced weeks of confusion trying to figure out which guidelines they should follow. It’s undermining the critical work GPs do in caring for patients and in controlling outbreaks like coronavirus," he said.

“It’s essential that we are receiving timely, evidence-based and consistent advice from the outset of an outbreak, so we can continue providing safe and high-quality care.”

Dr Nespolon is concerned about access to protective equipment and has heard stories from GPs who cannot access face masks. He is also concerned about the increased workload that GPs are facing as they are booked out with people who suspect they have the virus.

“For example, some of the states have told people to call their GPs if they suspect they have coronavirus. The problem with that is GPs who are booked out are going to have to stop seeing practice patients and act as a free telephone triage service,” he said.

“We are not remunerated for that and it can take up a lot of time. It’s just another instance of why we need a consistent nation-wide approach.

“The questions we are now asking are how can we solve these problems and how can we do better?"

Nespolon is calling for general practice to be included in both federal and state government planning for public health responses to potential pandemics.

The RACGP is also calling for: a national plan for dealing with potential pandemics; a single centralised, national body dispensing information; a nation-wide approach to testing that features consistent information on how these tests should be carried out and where; and a system to capture intelligence from GPs on the frontline to monitor and report on the potential pandemic.

“GPs are at the frontline in the fight against coronavirus – it’s absolutely critical that they have the right information, the right resourcing and the right support to help their patients and control not just coronavirus, but any potential pandemics we will face in the future,” Dr Nespolon said.

As of February 17th, there has been 71,429 confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally. Of those, 794 cases have occurred outside of china; 454 of those cases are aboard a cruise ship in Japanese territorial waters. There have been 15 confirmed cases here in Australia.

Globally, 1775 people have died form the coronavirus with only three of those occurring outside of China – in Japan, The Philippines and France.

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