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GPs warn of deadly flaws in COVID-at-home system

The deaths Dr Rio cited involved two COVID-positive patients – a woman in her 40s from the Darebin area and a Hume woman in her 60s – whose circumstances will be subject to a coronial inquiry.

But the tragedies led to GPs exposing another gap in the system this month: that they were not always told when their patients test positive to coronavirus until days after their diagnosis, forcing some to call ambulances for people who have deteriorated in their homes.

Newport GP Hanna El-Khoury

Newport GP Hanna El-KhouryCredit:Scott McNaughton

Western suburbs GP Hanna El-Khoury told The Age that “communication breakdowns and health bureaucracy” had kept him in the dark about patients infected with the virus.

“By the time I have spoken to some patients, they have deteriorated quickly and after assessing them over the phone I have had to call an ambulance,” he said this month.

The need for proper resourcing is particularly acute in the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne where the bulk of COVID-19 cases are concentrated, prompting epidemiologists and the state’s Australian Medical Association to call for incentives to keep people in these coronavirus hotspots in their homes, and for essential workers in the north and western suburbs to have their vaccinations brought forward.

As The Age reported this month, Victoria’s health system is under strain, from ambulance response times and access to mental health beds, to dental waiting lists and the number of hospital patients receiving urgent treatment. Patients are arriving sicker after putting off care or having their surgeries delayed due to the pandemic, resulting in more people flooding emergency departments than ever before.

While the government says it has enough ICU beds to treat an expected influx of patients, finding enough nurses and other health professionals to staff them will be the greatest challenge.

Dr Karen Price, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, said a well-resourced primary care system would help to ensure more COVID patients received the support they needed from their GPs, which would prevent many from deteriorating to the point that they need hospital.

“We’re going to need to look at how we manage respiratory illness going forward in any healthcare setting because there’s going to be COVID circulating and we’re going to have vulnerable people,” she said.

“We can certainly help our hospital colleagues in providing those kinds of services but we need the infrastructure and we need the money spent.”

On Sunday, Victoria recorded 392 new locally acquired cases, but only 107 were linked to existing outbreaks.

A Health Department spokesman said the department was “doing everything we can to keep Victorians safe from COVID-19”.

“As well as providing Victoria’s health services with the beds and equipment they need to care for more seriously ill patients, care and support is also provided to people who test positive in the comfort of their home, freeing up beds at health services.”

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