“I hesitated to do a swab because I did not fulfil your criteria for testing but did one anyway on Thursday evening for the sake of completeness, not imagining for one moment it would turn out positive,” he wrote.
“I believe you have taken a cheap opportunity for political grandstanding and would appreciate an apology,” he told the minister.
Dr Higgins saw about 70 patients at The Toorak Clinic and aged-care facility Mecwacare last week.
Announcing the diagnosis on Saturday, Ms Mikakos said she was “absolutely flabbergasted that the doctor who has experienced flu-like symptoms has presented to work”.
Ms Mikakos has so far been unavailable for comment but fellow MP Gabrielle Williams said on Sunday morning: “The Victorian government is unapologetic about doing all we can to keep the Victorian community safe”.
“I understand the minister of health reached out to the GP overnight to express to him her hope that he’s feeling better,” she said. “This is not about targeting a particular individual. This is about urging our entire community to take the precautions that we know need to be taken in order to keep Victorians safe.”
Ms Williams defended her colleague, saying Ms Mikakos was merely highlighting the need for the public to be hyper-vigilant during a health crisis that was shaping up to be a global pandemic.
She said the health sector was at the coalface of the response and dealing with some of the most vulnerable, and immuno-compromised, people in society.
Melbourne GPs have rallied around the doctor. In a letter sent to Ms Mikakos and federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, the doctors said GPs were watching events unfolding “with increasing horror”.
“We know from the experience of other countries that many doctors have become sick and died in the course of doing their jobs in this outbreak,” they said in the letter.
“We are already struggling to come up with plans on how to look after our patients while minimising the risk to ourselves, our patients and our loved ones.”
In the letter, they said claims of equipment given to doctors to protect themselves and patients were “completely untrue”.
“The way you treated our colleague today has given us little confidence that we have support from our health minister,” they said.
“To the contrary, you proved that you are ready to throw any infected doctor under the bus.”
An online petition demanding Ms Mikakos apologise to Dr Higgins has been signed more than 1300 times.
Dr Higgins developed a runny nose on an internal flight from Denver to San Francisco on February 27 and then flew from San Francisco to Melbourne on flight UA0060 arriving at 9.30am on February 29.
Ms Mikakos said the doctor may have contracted the virus on a flight in the US but attended work with flu-like symptoms, treating dozens of patients over five days between Monday, March 2 and Friday, March 6.
Dr Higgins, the father of singer Missy Higgins, also treated two patients at aged-care facility MecwaCare.
A sign at the front of the facility warned visitors that they were at risk of acquiring an “influenza-like illness” by visiting the centre. The aged-care patients are being closely monitored and have been isolated in their rooms.
Dr Higgins is the eleventh person to test positive in Victoria for coronavirus. At 2pm on Sunday, Australia had 74 confirmed cases and three coronavirus-related deaths.
Worldwide, there have been more than 100,000 confirmed cases and more than 3500 deaths.
The Toorak Clinic in Malvern Road has been closed and all patients who came into contact with the doctor, as well as clinic staff, are required to self-isolate for 14 days.
The health department is also working with authorities to obtain the passenger details from Dr Higgins’ flight.
On Saturday night, hundreds of GPs and health professionals took to Ms Mikakos’ Facebook page to show their support for Dr Higgins and condemn her handling of his diagnosis.
“You might as well refer all of us to AHPRA because there’s probably not a doctor in the country who hasn’t worked with a cold or worse,” wrote Carolyn Bursle.
“Your comments show a staggering lack of understanding of the system in which we work. Winter is going to be interesting if we all need to stay home for every sniffle or scratchy throat. I hope you have your apology ready for the doctor who followed government directives and was publicly shamed for it,” she wrote.
“I am a GP and quite frankly, I’m outraged by your comments to the media,” wrote Bianca Carroll.
“Your scapegoating of that poor doctor who, by your own guidelines, did not even meet the criteria for testing is outrageous … I am fully prepared for the fact that I will get coronavirus whilst performing my job. As doctors we understand these risks yet still we show up because that is the oath we took. With risk now of AHPRA notifications and public defamation, I think you will see more patients being diverted to our already struggling hospitals. I look forward to your apology to our colleague,” she wrote.
Overnight, Ms Mikakos defended herself on Facebook.
“We are facing unique challenges with COVID-19 which is why it is important, now more than ever, that those who are unwell stay at home and avoid contact with others,” she wrote.
“GPs play an integral role in our response to COVID-19 and I will continue working with the federal government to ensure they have all the support they need including access to the national stockpile of PPE and MBS item numbers for Telehealth consultations.”
“We will always protect patient privacy. However we have a public health duty to the wider community to provide information about exposure points, which require details such as business locations and flights to be made public to allow for contact tracing.”
“I know this can be very challenging and distressing for those involved and I am deeply sympathetic to this, but public safety has to be our priority.”
Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier said the health minister had lost the confidence of the GP fraternity, and that she had “botched” the state government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
“She’s sending mixed messages. She’s saying go about your lives normally, live your lives normally, don’t panic but if you have a runny nose stay isolated in your home,” Ms Crozier said.
“They’ve provided confusion amongst the very, very areas there needs to be clear and definite guidelines and that is through our GP fraternity and our healthcare sector, they need clear guidelines.”
A passenger on the same flight as Dr Higgins, who did not want to be named, said nobody had contacted him by Saturday evening.
“I found out about all this when I read the article online, the airline hadn’t called me,” he said. “I have no idea if I sat near this man or not, it’s probably unlikely, but I’m not sure.
He said he called the hotline and was told because he wasn’t showing symptoms, he wouldn’t be tested.
“Instead I was asked to isolate myself for seven days since it’s already been a week, which I’ll do.
“It was all quite underwhelming. I thought they’d be sending down an ambulance with a police escort.”
The symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough, sore throat, headache, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. If you suspect you or a family member has coronavirus you should call (not visit) your GP or ring the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
Robyn Grace is a journalist at The Age.
Nicole Precel is a video journalist and reporter at The Age. She is also a documentary maker.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.
Sumeyya is a state political reporter for The Age.