Patrick McGorry calls for improved mental health screening in quarantine


Thousands of Australians have been bussed to city hotels for a mandatory 14-day quarantine period after returning from overseas as the government works to stop the spread of coronavirus. Many have complained of a lack of access to fresh air, exercise, laundry facilities or cleaning products and poor-quality food.

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Paul Finlay, a doctor who was screening the first returning travellers sent to hotels in Sydney, said he had flagged more than a dozen people with pre-diagnosed mental and other health problems that he believed should have been exempted from hotel detention. But he said it had taken more than a week of being confined to their hotel rooms for some of these patients to be released.

One returned traveller, who asked not to be named, said he had post traumatic stress disorder after surviving the 2015 Nepal earthquake “on the fifth floor of a hotel room with windows that didn’t open”. Within hours of being quarantined at the Hilton in Sydney, he had suffered flashbacks and a panic attack, the Bondi resident said.

He said it was three days before he received mental health support – a psychologist who spoke to him over the phone.

“You know, if I was a really serious case … it might be too late,” he said. “There was no nurse to talk to, no one to say it’s okay or talk through it or bring me medicine.”

He said he had asked a member of the medical staff about why people weren’t put in rooms with windows or balconies so they could access fresh air, and was told: “It’s a suicide risk.”

Professor McGorry said efforts should also be made to protect people in hotel quarantine from hurting themselves, such as removing any potential means of self harm where possible.

Dr Finlay said it was only after he posted a lengthy public Facebook post on the issue in early April that patients he had advocated for, including the Bondi resident, were released.

The following week, Dr Finlay said he was relieved of his duties at Sydney International Airport. A spokeswoman for the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District said it had no longer required Dr Finlay, who had been engaged as a locum to screen passengers, “due to the reduction of arrivals at the airport”.

Australian Medical Association ethics committee chairman Chris Moy said hotel quarantine was set up at short notice with little time to plan for mental health risks.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said state health authorities overseeing the hotel quarantine were “ensuring that there is a very strong focus on mental health and safety”.

A NSW Health spokesman said requests for exemptions to hotel quarantine were decided on an individual basis by a panel of expert doctors.

“Each hotel has on-site nursing and a daily medical presence,” the spokesman said. “Travellers can access this medical service, which includes a mental health component, and requests for exemptions are also escalated by this avenue.”

Patients unable to have their medical needs met on-site could access NSW emergency departments and psychiatric wards, the spokesman said.

Comment has been sought from the Victorian Health Department.

Support is available for those who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14; Mensline 1300 789 978; Kids Helpline 1800 551 800; beyondblue 1300 224 636.

Do you know more? Email dana.mccauley@smh.com.au

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