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‘Phantom’ COVID cases deny healthcare to cross-border patients

Misreported COVID-19 cases in north regional Victoria are impeding South Australia’s willingness to ease border restrictions for medical purposes, including elective eye surgery, according to a Federal MP who is concerned about a waiting list blow out.

Dr Anne Webster, Federal Member for Mallee, which includes the town of Mildura, has called on the SA Government to grant quarantine exemptions to specialists who cross the border to treat patients in her electorate. She says a central issue has been the inaccurate reporting of cases from Victorian health officials and a slow response to inform their SA counterparts.

Anne Webster.

It comes after patients in Mildura were told their medical appointments and elective surgeries had to be deferred because current border restrictions require SA health workers travelling to the Victorian region to quarantine for 14 days on return. Victorian patients seeking care in SA also need to quarantine in the state before care.

This is despite the SA Government granting exemptions to health professionals servicing Broken Hill in New South Wales. Adding to the frustration is the fact Mildura hasn’t recorded a COVID-19 case for more than six weeks.

Meanwhile, the SA Government announced on Tuesday it would delay a 20 July deadline to re-open its border to Victorians after a surge of cases in the state.

According to the ABC, nine of Mildura Health Private Hospital’s visiting specialists from SA – covering ophthalmology, orthopaedics, general surgery, dentistry, oral and maxillofacial, ENT and radiography – have been affected.

More than 200 patients have reportedly had their elective surgery deferred in the last two to three months, prompting the private hospital’s CEO Mr Marcus Guthrie to call for a Mildura ‘travel bubble’.

A key issue, according to Webster, has been three COVID-19 cases that were wrongly attributed to Mildura. A lack of communication between SA Health and the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to update Mildura’s epidemiology has exacerbated the issue.

“These misreported cases have increased anxiety in the community and have led some to question the validity of the data,” she said. “They’ve also had an effect on South Australia’s willingness to ease border restrictions for medical purposes. This incorrect reporting cannot continue.”

SA Minister of Health and Wellbeing Mr Stephen Wade told Insight once that information had been received, it could consider an exemption for health professionals visiting Mildura.

Stephen Wade.

“The safety of South Australians is of utmost importance,” he said. “As detailed in my letter to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, South Australian public health officials have requested information from the Victoria Department of Health about the most recent COVID-19 positive cases in the Mildura area to assist in making a decision regarding quarantining arrangements for health care workers returning to South Australia from Mildura.

“That information has not yet been made available, but once received it will be considered by the South Australians Medical Exemptions Committee.”

Cataract patient’s ordeal 

In a TV interview, Webster said it may take one to two years for Mildura private hospital providers to catch up. She highlighted one particular case in which a woman expressed concern for her 78-year-old mother with early onset dementia who requires cataract surgery.

“For her to go to Adelaide and isolate for two weeks and then have surgery exacerbates an already very complex situation, so it’s just absolutely not fair,” Webster said.

“The concern I have around this policy of no exemption is that it’s based on information that’s coming out of Melbourne, which denies the 550km distance that we are to Melbourne and the fact we have had no cases for some time.”

A SA Health spokesperson told Insight Victorian patients can be given exemptions to enter SA for treatment and hospital-to-hospital transfers for urgent cases.

The SA Government originally committed to lifting existing border restriction on 20 July, despite the recent spike of coronavirus cases in Victoria. However, that planned was scrapped on Tuesday.

“We apologise to many people who have had to make changes because of our change of the date of July 20 but our number one priority is the health, safety and welfare of all South Australians,” Mr SA premier Mr Steven Marshall told the ABC.

The transition committee is still considering reopening the borders to the ACT and New South Wales sooner and will provide an update later this week.

SA has already opened its borders to Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and Queensland.