Doctors and health care workers wearing face masks attend a symposium on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong 25/04/2003.
Doctors and health care workers wearing face masks attend a symposium on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Hong Kong 25/04/2003.

Desperate doctors buying face masks from Bunnings

GENERAL practitioners have been sourcing scarce face masks from Bunnings, eBay and automotive industry suppliers to protect themselves and their patients amid the emerging coronavirus crisis.

Although the Federal Government has provided masks from its national stockpile to Primary Health Networks to supply to GPs, frustrated doctors say they have not been given enough to cope in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Face Masks being sold on Gumtree.
Face Masks being sold on Gumtree.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners' Queensland chair Bruce Willett said his practice of 18 doctors at Victoria Point, a bayside suburb near Brisbane, had received 50 surgical masks and 18 N95 masks from the national stockpile.

"That's not going to go very far," Dr Willett said. "A lot of GPs are angry, I'm concerned. It's not critical yet but we're worried."

He said his practice had sourced another 10 P2 masks from an automotive industry supplier.

"Most practices are going to eBay or Bunnings to source protective equipment," Dr Willett said.

Prior to the emergence of COVID-19, the Victoria Point practice kept surgical masks in the waiting room for patients with suspected infections.

But he said people had been stealing them, forcing the practice to keep them behind the counter.

Dr Willett said he was not confident the Federal Government would be able to source sufficient personal protective equipment for general practitioners during an expected coronavirus pandemic.

The national stockpile had already been depleted by the recent bushfire crisis.

Health workers in China appear to have been particularly vulnerable to developing COVID-19 since the virus emerged in December.

Among Australia's first cases of locally acquired COVID-19 infection have been a doctor and an aged care worker.

 

Fans wear face masks during the FA Cup Fifth Round match between Leicester City and Birmingham City at The King Power Stadium this week in Leicester, England. Picture: Alex Pantling, Getty Images.
Fans wear face masks during the FA Cup Fifth Round match between Leicester City and Birmingham City at The King Power Stadium this week in Leicester, England. Picture: Alex Pantling, Getty Images.

Dr Willett stressed that patients who believed they may have COVID-19 after falling ill within 14 days of returning from overseas, should ring their GP practice first.

"GPs are really keen to treat as many people as we can by the phone so that we don't spread it in our waiting rooms," he said. "Most people can be assessed over the phone and don't need to come in.

"I can arrange for testing to be done without you coming into the practice and ask you to self-isolate at home until we get the test result."

Dr Willett stressed most people who developed COVID-19 would get a mild illness or may need a week or two off work to recover.

"The vast majority of people will not require hospitalisation. It appears to be worse than a normal flu, but it's certainly not the black plague," he said.

The biggest problem may be in aged care homes, with the Queensland Nurses and Midwives' Union expressing concern about a lack of personal protective equipment for nurses working in the sector.

A Federal Government spokeswoman said face masks had been made available to general practitioners, health care workers and pharmacists through its Primary Health Networks since January.

"GPs who visit aged care premises would have access to masks," the spokeswoman said.

Brisbane North Primary Health Network deputy CEO Libby Dunstan said it had received 26,000 surgical masks and 960 P2 masks from the national stockpile to distribute to more than 1000 GPs.

"I absolutely recognise that general practices and other providers across the health sector are experiencing challenges in accessing personal protective equipment," Ms Dunstan said.