Australian states have again been forced into lockdowns and restrictions as they combat another nationwide outbreak of COVID-19.
Although many areas are now in the “green permit required” zone, the greater NSW and Sydney region remain in the “orange COVID-19 test required within 72 hours” zone.
What you need to know:
● Residents of the Greater Sydney region are currently subject to a two-week stay-at-home order.
● Residents are only able to leave their homes for essential reasons including grocery shopping, exercise, receiving medical care and essential work and education that cannot be done from home.
● In regional NSW, only five visitors are allowed at a home at once, a 20 person limit applies to gyms and singing and dancing at indoor venues is not permitted
(Nine News, 2021)
Medworld spoke with Dr Wijeratne about what it is like currently at her GP practice in Sydney.
(At the time of recording this interview) Sydney had just moved into new pre-lockdown COVID-19 restrictions. We asked Dr Wijeratne to tell us a bit about the atmosphere of the community and how her practice was handling the situation.
We have implemented similar precautions to what we did last year, which has meant pivoting to mostly telehealth consultations. If a face-to-face consultation is considered, patients are screened for risk factors for COVID and in some cases a COVID test is ordered prior to allowing that consultation. That in itself is difficult for our patients and our staff. People want to see their doctor.
The community is anxious. Australia had previously done such a good job in containing the virus. Following the peak of it last year, I believe there was some complacency. I get the impression that some in the community are almost surprised that we have had another outbreak recently. Since the outbreak and the need for “lockdown” there has definitely been a shift towards worry. That worry and anxiety manifest itself in various ways. Our support staff – the receptionists, our practice manager and nurse get the brunt of it as patients are now desperate to get their vaccination and are frustrated that they aren’t eligible yet or cannot access a particular vaccination for months. As a doctor, I hear that frustration regularly in consultations. I echo the frustration. Our practice handles this by being united in our approach. We try to support each other as best we can by regularly having meetings, talking and making changes when we need to.
Can you provide some insight into your overall experiences working as a GP during COVID-19?
March 2020 – that’s when COVID-19 rocked our world. Of course we had been following what had been going on around the world. We had started receiving public health notifications earlier in the year advising us to consider this coronavirus in patients arriving from Wuhan with certain symptoms and as the weeks went on, the regions of concern grew into countries of concern.
I remember in early March an Australian GP returning from the United States (at that time the US wasn’t a “country of concern”) decided to test himself for COVID-19 and tested positive. He was named and shamed by his health minister for taking a responsible action – something that is standard practice now. I couldn’t believe it. I was moved to write letters to the state and federal health ministers and Chief Medical Officer. I felt alone and unprepared. We had limited PPE and initially there really wasn’t much advice or any guidelines to help us practically prepare for the impending devastation that we were seeing in other countries.
Our practice held practice meetings almost daily back then – I was one of the doctors who was trying to prepare for what we were seeing overseas– constantly trying to figure out how we would keep our patients, our staff and our families safe. We changed our protocols many times.
In hindsight, I am so proud of what we did. Two weeks prior to Sydney “locking down” we had converted most of our consultations to telehealth and we screened everyone that needed to come into the practice. If anyone with respiratory symptoms needed review, they were seen in an isolation room wearing PPE and COVID testing following public health recommendations was routine. We had cleaning protocols. We taught our support staff how to don and doff masks. We actually locked the doors of our practice. Some patients understood we were making these changes in an attempt to protect our community and were grateful; others found the changes we made really difficult and were frustrated they couldn’t easily see their doctor.
It was hard navigating that period. To complicate the situation, in March I found out I was pregnant so that was another consideration I had to contend with. I normally don’t have issues with sleep – but in March 2020, I definitely had nights where I was staring into the darkness wondering how we were going to keep everyone safe.
I see that you now have the vaccine at your practice. How has this been received by patients?
In general, patients have been really keen to get vaccinated. There have been some patients who have had concerns or questions and all doctors at the practice have welcomed consults to discuss their concerns. I think having concerns is completely understandable. Since the outbreak in Sydney in the last couple of weeks the interest in getting vaccinated has really ramped up.
1. Nine News, 3rdJuly 2021, accessed: 5th, July 2021 9news.com.au