‘Genuine questions’ asked about lockdown

Quiet Melbourne streets during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victoria’s COVID response has shown that the state bureaucracy does not understand pharmacy, says one stakeholder, as a new survey reveals health professional attitudes to the state’s COVID-19 strategy

Research by the TKW group has found that 81% of Victoria’s health professionals support maintaining the current Stage Four restrictions until Victoria’s “second wave” of the novel coronavirus is under control.

The survey included responses from 300 frontline health care workers, including 14 pharmacists, from 23 to 30 August.

“TKW Research General Manager Mandy Admiraal said, “Even before Daniel Andrews announced his government’s COVID-19 roadmap, a strong majority (81%) of Victoria’s healthcare professionals were on board with keeping Stage 4 restrictions”.

“The most recommended solution (23%) from frontline health workers to help tackle the spread of COVID-19 in the State was for Victorians to continue wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands frequently.”

Many respondents were also scathing of decisions made around the management of quarantine hotels, with 75% blaming poor management of hotel quarantine as the primary cause of the second outbreak in Victoria.

Half (53%) felt poor management of aged care facilities also contributed and almost all the healthcare professionals surveyed (93%) said that major reform was needed in the aged care sector.

One pharmacist interviewed was critical of the aged care response, saying that “Aged care homes and other similar areas like disability group homes need to have actual medical staff on hand and sufficiently resourced. Nurse ratios should be mandatory and much higher.”

“Healthcare professionals want to see serious change in the aged care sector, but also in testing and contact tracing. Eighty-four percent of the healthcare professionals said there has to be major reform in the way we test Victorians and track the spread of the virus,” said Ms Admiraal.

Again, a pharmacist commented on contact tracing, saying that “They simply aren’t sufficient. I know of one case where the DHHS contacted the family two weeks after possible exposure. That’s just NOT good enough – especially to reduce the spread!”

While there is support for ongoing restrictions, not all healthcare professionals are happy with how the pandemic is being handled in Victoria.

Only 28% of healthcare professionals surveyed were satisfied with Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos’ performance and just 58% (down from 86% in April) for Premier Daniel Andrews. Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton was viewed more positively, with an approval rating of 74%.

“There is definitely an emerging disgruntled minority amongst healthcare professionals,” continued Ms Admiraal.

“Between 21% and 31% of Victorian healthcare professionals feel that Premier Andrews and health officials should resign over the second outbreak and that Stage 4 restrictions will do more harm than good.”

This group is angry about the decisions made by Andrews (32% felt the Premier’s decisions were to blame for the second outbreak), but also the impact the second outbreak has had on their practices.

“For healthcare professionals such as surgeons and those in allied health, the second outbreak has been a massive blow to their practices, just as they thought things were returning to normal.”

Anthony Tassone, Victorian state president of the Pharmacy Guild, said that members have expressed a “range of diverse views” about the roadmap outlined by Premier Andrews.

“Community pharmacies have continued to turn up and be there for their patients throughout the COVID pandemic – keeping their doors open and being available to meet the needs of their local community,” Mr Tassone told the AJP.

 “The ongoing restrictions have been difficult for all Victorians to cope with as they have far-reaching consequences on schooling for children, being able to visit family, sporting activities and many others. 

“Like anybody else in our community, pharmacists and pharmacy staff have found it challenging – for themselves but also doing their best putting on a brave face for their patients when presenting to the pharmacy.”

He noted that community pharmacy teams have done an “incredible job to ensure continuity of care and service for their patients at times literally in the face of adversity with some extremely disappointing and unacceptable behaviour from the public”.

“It is a marathon without fully knowing where or when the finish line is, and the days of the week can feel like ‘Blursday’ and it’s the ‘Sameth of September’.

“Community pharmacies have taken many steps to make their practices COVIDSafe as part of the Victorian government requirements as a permitted business that is able to continue to operate in the interests of safety for their teams and patients.”

Member feedback indicates a a general acceptance of the need for some restrictions to be in place given the current active case levels in metropolitan Melbourne, “but there is a broad view that things should be able to be eased in regional Victoria sooner rather than later given the number of active cases that are occurring in these areas”.

“Given it has now been revealed that measures such as the curfew at night was not based on medical or health advice (or even a request by Victoria Police) there are genuine questions from members and the broad community for that matter as to what extent some of the measures and thresholds for easing restrictions are truly informed by health or medical advice,” Mr Tassone said.

“There is also some confusion amongst members as to why triggers or thresholds for easing restrictions differ between Victoria and what is being experienced in New South Wales.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted one particular problem for the sector, Mr Tassone said.

“As much as community pharmacy teams and Guild members want to see the easing of COVID restrictions as soon as possible – they also want recognition of the critical role they have played and continue to play throughout the pandemic from the Victorian government. 

“From the first wave of the pandemic, in discussions with the Victorian government and public service it has felt like peak pharmacy professional organisations have had to argue and fight for pharmacy to be considered a critical service and for their employees to be considered essential health care workers whether it has been about: being a health care service (not a retail business) or prioritisation of pharmacy staff for COVID testing.

“The Victorian bureaucracy at times just did not understand community pharmacy.

“Nothing has demonstrated the absolute need for a Chief Pharmacist in the Victorian public service than the experiences of the COVID pandemic. 

“It will be high on the list of priorities when the Guild in lockstep with the PSA reconvene with the Health Minister and their office once we get closer to a new ‘COVID normal’.”

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