“There are a range of ways of dealing with patients who do have coronavirus, but are at the mild to moderate end of the spectrum. We’re very open to these suggestions.”
The Tasmanian government is setting up two facilities in Hobart and Launceston for patients unable to self isolate at home, as health authorities grapple with a COVID-19 outbreak in the state’s north west that has forced the closure of two hospitals.
Professor Dale Fisher, an Australian infectious disease expert based in Singapore who chairs the World Health Organisation’s outbreak response steering committee, said countries that had kept case numbers low had placed all patients who tested positive to COVID-19 in strict isolation.
“It’s so important to take these people out of the community,” Professor Fisher told the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Now that social distancing measures had brought transmission rates down, he said, infection numbers were low enough to make it feasible to impose medically-supervised isolation, saying the public could be sold on the measure as a way out of “harsh social restrictions”.
“Your curve’s gone flat because you locked down,” Professor Fisher said.
Coming out of lockdown would require measures to prevent community transmission, he said.
John Burgess, the Australian Medical Association’s Tasmanian president, said allowing people with mild to moderate COVID-19 to self isolate at home left the community exposed as up to 10 per cent of people would not comply with isolation, potentially starting “a new train of transmission”.
“Why take that risk if we can minimise it?” Professor Burgess said.
Even those who did stay at home as ordered could infect housemates or family members, he said, with the coronavirus easily transmissible via infected droplets that could remain alive on surfaces for hours or days – in some cases, even after the patient recovered.
He called on the federal government to promote the model of clinically supervised “medi-hotels” as the best option for preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
The NSW government has offered hotel rooms to some COVID-19 patients unable to isolate at home, across a number of hotels that also house returned travellers under quarantine.
Professor Burgess said the Tasmanian hospital outbreak should be “a warning to all areas and regions” of Australia.
“It highlights just how terribly infectious this disease is,” he said.
The Australian Defence Force has been called in to set up a makeshift emergency department in Burnie, Tasmania and Australian Medical Assistance Teams personnel are on their way to assist, after about 1200 medical staff were placed in isolation when 43 hospital workers tested positive.
AMA ethics committee chair Chris Moy said while the medi-hotel concept was the “best practice” option from a medical point of view, it may pose a challenge to resources by taking up medical staff and accommodation space, “especially in states with more cases”.
Professor Burgess said medi-hotels could be set up so that patients could interact with each other in common recreation areas sealed off from the rest of the building, unlike the returned Australians in mandatory hotel quarantine who are confined to their rooms.
“That avoids people being psychologically isolated … because they’ve all got the condition, they can’t make it any worse for themselves,” he said.
Patients would have their temperatures checked and oxygen levels monitored daily.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.