GPs say COVID-19 Omicron surge pushing them to brink, as rapid antigen tests and booster rollout create the 'perfect storm'

By the Specialist Reporting Team's Mary Lloyd and Penny Timms
GPs say Omicron surge is pushing them to the brink

When Todd Cameron heard the Prime Minister tell Australians to contact their GP if they got a positive COVID-19 result from a rapid antigen test, he knew it would not go well.

The phones at the Melbourne doctor's practice started ringing off the hook the following day, tying up reception staff already swamped by rescheduling booster shots.

"We learn about this information at the same time that everybody else does," he said. 

Dr Cameron said that, in many cases, GPs had little to offer people who tested positive. 

He said some patients experienced serious symptoms that needed medical attention, but most sought advice on basic issues, such as who to notify about testing positive, how long to isolate and what symptoms to watch out for. 

GPs under pressure 

As Australia's daily rate of new COVID-19 cases reached record highs last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the nation that GPs were the "principal point of care".

"People who have COVID should contact their GP," he said. 

Dr Cameron said doctors had since been fielding more frequent calls from people with elevated anxiety about how COVID-19 might affect them and their family, as well as having to make contact with people who had tested positive. 

He said that, when the timing of booster shots changed last month, his clinics needed to bring forward hundreds of appointments at the request of patients.   

This came as they prepared to roll out vaccinations for children this week, on top of caring for all the usual day-to-day ailments. 

Just before Christmas, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly wrote to GPs, saying: "Most COVID patients will be best managed in the community under the care of their GP." 

To support them, Professor Kelly said, the government had made telehealth a permanent part of primary health care. 

He also said the government was working with the states and territories to set up a digital system to ensure people with COVID-19 received the right level of care.  

Online reporting changes

The states and territories have all introduced different measures to monitor positive COVID-19 cases, but the water was muddied last week when the federal government changed the process for COVID-positive RATs. 

In Victoria, it is mandatory for positive RATs to be lodged online or over the phone and Queensland authorities have set up a "hotline" to register positive results.

Authorities in NSW say a positive RAT should be reported through its Service NSW app, with the online reporting system expected to be set up by the end of this week.  

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said the state had an automated system that analysed a person's risk to determine what level of care they needed. 

She said that most people could manage the disease at home, but people at high risk of severe disease would get additional attention. 

"They'll get called and we'll get them assessed about whether they need [additional] therapies," she said.  

AMA vice-president Chris Moy — a GP based in Adelaide — said responsibility for caring for people with COVID-19 varied greatly across the states. 

Dr Moy said GP practices were expected to be part of the reporting system for RATs and the care pathway, but no plan for that had been put in place. 

He wanted to see clear lines of responsibility put in place. 

The AMA"s Dr Chris Moy says GPs are already under-resourced.  (ABC News: Claire Campbell)

"The reporting of positive cases should still be through the state health systems," he said.  

He said it was frustrating that, two years into the pandemic, GPs had been put in this position. 

"General practice, which has been under-resourced for a very long time now, isn't this bottomless pit that we can continue to expect to be able to absorb everything without increased support," he said.  

Staff shortfalls 

Melbourne GP Lorraine Baker said that, over the weekend, she worked as a "doctor, nurse and receptionist" to keep her practice going. 

Like many businesses, GP practices have had high levels of staff absenteeism as people catch COVID-19 or are required to isolate because of exposure as close contacts of someone with the virus.

Dr Baker said her practice had been swamped with calls, just as she and her staff were hoping for some downtime to recover from an exhausting two years.

Melbourne GP Lorraine Baker says the standard of health care is slipping.  (ABC News: Patrick Stone)

"The volume of cases is so huge that the standard of health care that was applied before cannot be sustained," she said. 

Dr Baker said the extra volume of people contacting her clinic about their positive results came just as they were arranging appointments to administer vaccine boosters.

She said they have had to reschedule many boosters because their supply of doses had not arrived. 

Dr Moy said pressure could be taken off GP practices if the government told the public that much of the information they needed — including a symptom checker — was available online.

Dr Cameron agreed that clear messaging was needed from the government about where to get help so that GPs could continue to attend to all the other health issues people had. 

"I'd really like to see some clarity in messaging at the leadership level," he said.

"Please do not say, 'Call your GP as default when you don't know what to do'."

The Department of Health said that as well as extending payments for telehealth it was providing additional COVID payments, setting up GP respiratory clinics and providing practitioners with clinical guidance, personal protective equipment and pulse oximeters.

People seeking information about COVID-19 or vaccines can also contact the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080.

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