Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said she was concerned about reports general practitioners were unable to secure enough masks and urged the Commonwealth to provide personal protective equipment directly to the state government instead of through primary health networks.
“We will then provide the necessary equipment directly to the GPs, to dentists, pharmacists and others who might require them,” she said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt will meet with GPs in Canberra on Friday, where he will face demands for a new Medicare item number to allow them to bulk bill coronavirus patients for Skype sessions, and urgent access to protective masks.
Aged care workers, GPs and dentists are competing for access to the national stockpile of 20 million surgical and P2 face masks, with one medical practice refusing to accept coronavirus patients after running out of masks and dentists warning they will run out in four weeks.
Mr Hunt, who released 1 million masks from the stockpile to GPs and pharmacists five weeks ago, said on Thursday he was prepared to work with general practice “to identify any further and additional needs”.
The Health Services Union will use a roundtable being hosted by Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck in Canberra on Friday to demand “a significant chunk” of the federal stimulus package to help the “cash-strapped” sector respond to the coronavirus.
HSU president Gerard Hayes said struggling aged care operators, who will soon face coronavirus audits by the regulator, were “highly compromised in dealing with this crisis”, with “very few” having the staff or supplies to prepare for the epidemic.
The government must “ensure that every aged care facility has enough gloves, protective gowns and P2 masks to get them through a two-week lockdown”, Mr Hayes said. “At the moment, workers are wearing ill-fitting gloves and re-using them.
“Budget cuts have already left very few facilities with enough resources to cope with a 48-hour lockdown, let alone two weeks.”
Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone said doctors and other health workers were “at the frontline” of responding to COVID-19 and must have access to masks and protective gear “to do their job safely and effectively – especially if the numbers of patients requiring testing and care increases significantly”.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners president Harry Nespolon called on the government to release masks from the national stockpile immediately, saying doctors needed 6.9 million masks a month.
“They’ve got 20 million masks to be released in an emergency. When’s an emergency? I’d say now,” Dr Nespolon said.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.