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After several decades dealing with the aftermath of genocide in Uganda, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia as a UN special adviser on human rights, I am not easily stressed. But I recently had a distressing experience that I would like to see other vulnerable Australians avoid.
Each month I attend the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for infusions that are part of my treatment for an autoimmune disorder – treatment that means I am immunocompromised.
There should be alternative testing queues for vulnerable people.Credit:Cole Bennetts
Last Thursday, I received a message from the hospital infusion centre informing me that I would not be admitted unless I could produce a negative test for COVID-19 conducted on Saturday, 72 hours before my appointment the following Tuesday. We contacted a number of testing centres – but many were closed on Saturdays —and none could guarantee test results within 72 hours.
I rang the hospital infusion centre to query whether this had to be a PCR test – or whether a RAT test or series of negative RAT tests over several days before Tuesday would be acceptable. It was not. (Obviously, I was acutely conscious that the latest instructions from the government were that only people with symptoms should present themselves for a PCR test.)
The most helpful advice was from a staff member at the Sydney and Sydney Eye Hospital – which indicated it opened its testing centre at 10am Saturday morning and was very hopeful that the test results would be ready by Monday. (The person my wife spoke to was extremely surprised at the conditions imposed by the RPA, indicating that at Sydney Hospital they only required people to be triple vaccinated —which I am— to attend for an appointment.)
I was advised I should turn up very early and, with a number of other people, I did. The staff had thoughtfully provided a few chairs – but only for those early in the queue. The gentleman a few feet away from me on my left looked extremely unwell – and this was confirmed shortly before 10 am when one of the staff came out and asked each of us whether we had symptoms. He said he did. (I couldn’t hear the answer of the person a few feet away on my right.)
I was wearing a KN95 mask – but many people near me were wearing paper masks (some more successfully fitted than others). In the several hours we waited some people moved about and chatted. Knowing that, at 75 and being immunosuppressed, I am particularly vulnerable I seriously considered leaving (I had moved as far away from the gentleman next to me as I could) – but decided that as it meant I would be forfeiting my infusions against my specialist’s advice I had to stay.
Rather than exposing immunocompromised and other vulnerable people to unnecessary risks by queueing up with a large number of people who have been instructed to get tested because they have COVID-like symptoms, I have several alternative suggestions. I believe these would be both safer for the individuals concerned and also contribute to preventing the spread of this virus.
NSW Health should specifically allocate one or two testing clinics for those who do not have symptoms but are obliged to get a test in order to go to a hospital for necessary treatment.
Hospitals requiring tests for asymptomatic individuals, should accept triple vaccination and/or three negative RATs tested conducted in the three days prior to the visit.
Widely separated queues for symptomatic and asymptomatic people should be established, at least at high-volume testing centres in major cities.
I have the greatest respect for the nurses and other dedicated staff I encounter at our hospitals —and I completely agree appropriate measures must be taken to protect them. But in the confusion created by the inadequate, inconsistent and misdirected messaging from our political leaders, I believe there is more we can do to protect vulnerable patients.
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