General practitioners have rallied behind a Melbourne doctor who tested positive for coronavirus and demanded an apology from the Victorian health minister who they say has maligned frontline health workers.
It comes as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia reaches 73.
Dr Chis Higgins saw approximately 70 patients while recovering from what he believed to be a mild cold last week, before he tested positive for Covid-19. He had flown in from the US on Saturday morning.
All of those patients, including two he visited at Malvern’s Mecwacare nursing home, as well as all the clinical staff at the Toorak Clinic where Higgins is a GP, have since been told to self-isolate for 14 days.
The health minister, Jenny Mikakos, said on Saturday that she was “flabbergasted that a doctor that has flu-like symptoms has presented to work”, and that his decision to continue to treat patients while unwell may be a matter for the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency to pursue.
“I understand our medical and healthcare workers are dedicated to the work they do … But it is irresponsible for people to be going to work if they are unwell, and that is not just healthcare workers, it is everybody in the community who needs to take this very seriously,” Mikakos said.
She did not name the doctor, but the Toorak Clinic only has eight GPs.
Higgins, the father of the singer Missy Higgins, responded in a comment on Mikakos’s Facebook page, saying: “As the doctor concerned, I have been upset about the inaccuracies and unfairness of your comments.
“This is not the story that I told the DHSS whose job it is to relay information to you. I had a mild cold when I returned from the USA last Saturday morning which had almost resolved itself by Monday morning, hence my decision to return to work.
“I hesitated to do a swab because I did not fulfil your criteria for testing but did one anyway on Thursday evening for sake of completeness, not imagining for one moment it would turn out to be positive.
“I believe you have taken a cheap opportunity for political grandstanding and would appreciate an apology.”
GPs rushed to support Higgins on social media, saying that Mikakos owed him a public apology and should resign as minister. Many doctors said they frequently worked when they had a mild cold.
They also criticised Mikakos for saying GPs were “fully resourced”.
“As a GP, and clinic owner, I have been extremely worried about our ability to care for our patients in this pandemic with inadequate ppe [personal protective equipment] stocks provided,” Dr Elaine Sung said. “Turns out we also need to be worried about ministers trashing our reputation when we follow departmental guidelines.”
Some doctors that the minister’s comments, on top of a shortage of PPE, meant they did not want to see patients who may have coronavirus.
“They can all divert to the hospital and when all their doctors are off on self isolation you can find a solution to the problem you created,” Dr Susan Swanston said, in response to Mikakos’s post. “Do not expect GPs to bale out your overwhelmed health services, we owe you nothing. You reap what you sow!”
Mikakos responded to the criticism late Saturday night, saying that public safety was her priority.
“We will always protect patient privacy,” she said, in another Facebook post. “However we have a public health duty to the wider community to provide information about exposure points, which require details such as business locations and flights to be made public to allow for contact tracing.
“I know this can be very challenging and distressing for those involved and I am deeply sympathetic to this, but public safety has to be our priority.”
She said she would continue to work with the federal government to ensure GPs have the support they need, including access to the national stockpile of personal protective equipment such as masks.
The Australian government has acquired an additional 54 million facemasks for the national medical stockpile, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Sunday. Hunt said the masks would be made available for medical and aged care workers.