During any other March, I wouldn’t bother about having a slight fever, headaches and a sore throat. Generally, I’d get up and go about my business and scoff at feeling a bit tired. In the current climate of hysteria, and with concern more about passing the virus on to someone else than with having it myself, I decided to be proactive and follow the official recommendations. Here’s what I did, and the steps you can take, if you feel like you might have a cold or flu and are feeling especially careful.
First, my situation: Over the weekend, I was visiting family in another city and during a games night, one of the guests (a woman close to 80 years old) had some type of cold or flu. She mentioned getting tested for coronavirus, but hadn’t yet received the results. I maintained some distance from the guests, mostly because I had already had sore throat and was trying to protect them. As they were leaving, the lady with the cold gave me a warm hug goodbye.
Monday morning, I thought I was developing a fever and decided to work from home. As chills developed and a general sense of fatigue, I called the Tumut Hospital where a helpful nurse encouraged me to call Health Direct on 1800 022 222.
The Health Direct line is a triage helpline, helping reduce the number of people who are presenting at hospitals and clinics with coronavirus fears. Callers press a series of numbers indicating whether they are feeling unwell, if they’ve come into contact with someone who has travelled overseas or been diagnosed with the virus and the symptoms they are experiencing.
I pressed ‘1’ or ‘2’ to indicate my situation and symptoms and then settled in for the awful ‘hold’ music and constant reminders that ‘all registered nurses are currently taking calls…”
There were also frequent messages that “On 13 March, the Australian government advised all Australians to reconsider the need to travel overseas, regardless of destination,” which is especially unfortunate, because I booked an international flight just a week or two before the coronavirus became global news.
While I was waiting for a registered nurse to finish with the calls s/he was currently taking, I visited the recommended online symptom checker (www.healthdirect.gov.au) and I downloaded the Health Direct Symptom Checker app.
In the interest of science and good reporting, I also continued to wait on hold.
The online health symptom checker put me at “very low” risk for the virus, since I don’t have any of the severe respiratory symptoms and I haven’t knowingly been in contact with someone with the disease in the last 14 days (defined as “more than 15 minutes face-to-gave with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or sharing a closed space for more than 2 hours with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. This includes having this type of contact with the person 24 hours before they became ill.”)
That took about 15 minutes. Then I continued to wait on hold for another three hours, wondering how many people in NSW have three hours to spend on hold, waiting to find out if they might have coronavirus and what to do with it.
As the ‘hold’ music started to lull me to sleep, I wondered if I should actually check “yes” for feeling drowsy or becoming unconscious.
At 3 hours and 26 minutes, a genial fellow named ‘Aaron’ answered and asked for a list of my symptoms, which I described. He especially checked if I had a cough (no) and asked for my temperature (I don’t have a thermometer).
Aaron then started to create a “completely confidential” patient file which he said wouldn’t be shared with anyone.
In my excitement to be talking with a real person, I somehow pressed the “airplane mode” button with my cheek and the call disconnected.
Attempt #2 – When I tried to call back, I pressed all the right buttons, ready for another marathon wait session, but was disconnected for no apparent reason.
Attempt #3 – Disconnected again after following the correct prompts.
For now, this journalist is left with the impression that until more severe symptoms develop, or other cases of COVID-19 are reported in the area, the best thing to do is maintain good hygiene, keep a safe distance from others, and clear at least three hours in my calendar for more official advice.
In any case, Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has said that labs will limit COVID-19 testing, since it’s difficult sourcing consumable part of the testing kits, like swabs. In one case, 1600 people were tested at a fever clinic, but only one returned a positive result. For now, labs will focus their testing to “where they can get the most bang for their buck,” until the shortage is addressed. That means testing people who have recently returned from overseas or been in contact with someone who has the disease.