GPs hammered as code brown brings ‘chaotic’ scenes to local clinics

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General practitioners are again being flooded with patients as thousands of Victorians race to book their booster shots and medical clinics struggle to find appointments for the rising wave of coronavirus patients.

Days after a statewide code brown emergency was brought in to relieve a health system that has been stretched to breaking point by the Omicron wave, doctors say their phones are ringing off the hook

Mental health patients are waiting for hours or days in emergency departments.Credit:Damian Shaw

“It is chaotic at the moment. Hospitals are overwhelmed and the hotlines are too … we are truly struggling to accommodate everyone,” said Preethi Thennarasu the general manager of the Lalor Medical Clinic in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. She estimated that her practice, which is staffed with eight doctors, was fielding about 800 calls a day.

“Most of the patients have tested positive and they’re helpless. The hospital is unable to cover all the patients coming in, so they come to the GP,” Ms Thennarasu said.

Many of the patients had been referred to the clinic by hospitals or specialist medical services which under the code brown were now prioritising the most at-risk patients, she said.

The latest surge in demand for general practitioners comes as the Victorian government scrapped a controversial decision to pause IVF treatments following a heated backlash.

The government has also placed an order for 166 million more rapid antigen tests and revealed it is investigating the possibility of manufacturing the sought-after kits in Victoria after another 21,966 new cases of COVID-19 were reported across the state on Thursday. Of those cases, 10,273 were recorded after people returned positive rapid antigen test results.

Fifteen more deaths were reported, taking the total number of Victorian lives lost to COVID since the pandemic began to 1751.

The influx of patients calling GPs is being fuelled by people infected with coronavirus struggling to get through to COVID-19 hotlines or being sent home from emergency departments to recover from coronavirus after arriving with mild symptoms.

In the city’s outer west, a health service that provides urgent medical care has been closed for three weeks due to a lack of people to work there.

An email, seen by The Age, detailed that the Melton Health Urgent Care centre, run by Djerriwarrh Health Services, will be closed until January 31 due to “unforeseen staffing shortages”.

The service, which usually operates late into the evening, is for people with urgent, but not life-threatening medical conditions.

Melton GP Marcus Watson said it was a crucial service for the more than 180,000 people who live in the area, with the closest emergency department 33 kilometres away in Sunshine.

“People are being told to stay away from the emergency department, but in Melton we just don’t have anything else to fall back on,” he said.

The GP of more than 30 years, who has been campaigning for a 24-hour hospital to be built in Melton, said he was worried local health services were being pushed to breaking point by the Omicron outbreak.

Dr Watson said the phones were being “slammed” at his clinic as patients rushed to book in their booster shots after Premier Daniel Andrews reduced the third dose interval to three months.

“We’ve got four months worth of people that we vaccinated last year ringing up trying to get their boosters now,” Dr Watson said. “We just don’t have the manpower or the doses.”

Mukesh Haikerwal, who runs a GP clinic in Altona North, which doubles up as a vaccination and respiratory centre, said the clinic was forced to wind back its services to ensure doctors were available to see the hordes of patients trying to book in for a consultation.

In addition to the daily caseload, doctors also check in on patients who have tested positive at the clinic, which climbed to 91 people on Monday.

“We’ve been struggling since the fourth of January. It’s been a nightmare,” Dr Haikerwal said.

“We can’t do everything as if it were full because of lack of staff, because of people going off on furlough, because of doctors’ availability but also to keep the premises safe.”

Dr Mukesh Hakerwal (second from right) with other health workers last year. Credit:Getty

Melbourne’s western suburbs did not have the health services needed to meet demand, and the current outbreak was “making an already hard situation much worse,” he said.

From next Wednesday, Victorian hospitals will gradually begin scaling up their operations to enable IVF procedures to resume completely after the government scrapped a controversial decision to pause IVF treatments.

Authorities halted most IVF procedures on January 6 in response to the rising number of COVID-related hospitalisations.

The move attracted swift criticism from Prime Minister Scott Morrison who said the national cabinet had agreed early in the pandemic that IVF should only be halted as a last resort.

Thousands of rapid antigen tests arrived in Melbourne this week.Credit:Health Department

In his advice to the government, Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton also said the specialist nature of the workforce and equipment used in the procedures meant its resumption would not affect the pandemic response.

Acting Health Minister James Merlino apologised for the distress the cancellation had caused.

“IVF is a challenging journey for anyone to go through, let alone in the midst of a global pandemic, and we’re deeply sorry for the distress caused by affected services in recent weeks,” he said.

As cases continue to grow by tens of thousands of new coronavirus infections a day, Mr Andrews said the order of 166 million more rapid antigen tests, will be in addition to the 44 million tests procured this month.

“This is a very significant order that we’ve placed, among the largest, I expect, across the country,” he told reporters in Melbourne.

It is not yet clear how the tests will be distributed. Mr Andrews said the additional tests will cost “hundreds of millions” but declined to give an exact amount citing ongoing negotiations.

Djerriwarrh Health Services were contacted for comment.

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