RFDS vital if Covid-19 flares in regional areas

If someone in the regional areas needs treatment at a hospital due to Covid-19 or some other emergency situation the RFDS could be critical to getting them transported there. Picture: RFDS


ALTHOUGH I have lived in Yanchep or Gingin for years when I was younger I spent a lot of time in the Pilbara and Gascoyne so understand the attractions of the regional areas to tourists and grey nomads wanting to escape during winter.

I have seen Mt Augustus (also known these days by its Aboriginal name Burringurrah) and been inside the Gascoyne Junction hotel many years before it was washed away in the December 2010 flood.

What impressed me as a child about Burringurrah was how long it took to drive past it when travelling from one homestead to another.

For some holidays we went fishing in a tidal creek on Giralia Station where there was an old track used by wagons – in the olden days –  to cart wool down to the beach to be loaded onto a boat.

We used to collect oysters in the tidal creek, cook freshly caught fish including mangrove jacks and collect all kinds of shells.

We also went to the Winning races where in my pre-teens I had my first bet on a horse – the horse did not even get a place so I have never had a bet since.

Some years later while living in the Pilbara I visited Millstream, Karijini National Park and long before it became a declared contaminated site, the town of Wittenoom.

More years after that while living in Tom Price I suffered a medical emergency where I had to be transferred by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) to a hospital in Port Hedland.

At that stage Tom Price had two doctors and one would be the anaesthetist for the other if surgery was being carried out so if one of them was unavailable then obviously anyone needing emergency surgery was taken to Port Hedland, which is what happened in my case.

This experience has been on my mind ever since the McGowan Government said it would remove the regional travel restrictions put in place to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Back when I a RFDS patient the not-for-profit organisation played an essential role in getting patients outside the metropolitan area who needed emergency healthcare to a suitable hospital, which might be a regional hospital or one in Perth.

The RFDS still plays the same part today and it will be even more important if in the months to come there are Covid-19 outbreaks or clusters in the regional areas.

If you live in or visit the regional areas you will soon realise there are in most cases many kilometres between hospitals especially regional hospitals and regional WA only has a small number of intensive care unit beds.

For example if you are in Coral Bay in the Midwest you are 223km from Carnarvon Hospital.

If you are visiting Burringurrah (Mt Augustus) which relies on a remote area clinic you are 425km from the district Carnarvon Hospital, which is itself 467km from the regional Geraldton Hospital.

If you or someone else in the regional areas needs treatment at a hospital due to Covid-19  or another emergency situation the RFDS could be critical to getting you or them there.

On May 21 the RFDS posted some pre-proof research titled COVID-19 activity and surge modelling for rural and remote Australia on its website.

The research, which is to be published in the Air Medical Journal, says it is unclear how a mass infection would affect rural and remote Australia, due to vast distances between communities.

“If mass infection occurred in rural and remote towns, it could have dire outcomes,” the research said.

“This is due to rural and remote populations having higher rates of respiratory disease than their major city counterparts, as well as higher rates of other chronic diseases.

“Specifically, rural and remote populations are also more likely to suffer poorer outcomes of respiratory disease, including bronchiectasis.”

The research said modelling indicated if Covid-19 activity increased, the RFDS would need more aircraft to transport patients to inner-regional and major city hospitals.

“However, if Covid-19 activity was to increase to 10 patients per day per RFDS area of operations, many of the mild cases would need to remain within their communities for an extended period of time, potentially increasing the risk of community transfer.

“As such, it is important to ensure the RFDS has adequate funding, workforce and equipment to allow it to respond in the event of increased Covid-19 activity.”

“The research said Covid-19 directly affected the lungs and a patient’s ability to breathe, with severe cases requiring oxygen therapy via a respirator.

“Furthermore, many remote communities have high proportions of Indigenous Australians and higher levels of socioeconomic disadvantage.

“The life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is significantly lower than non-Indigenous Australians, with Indigenous Australians more likely to suffer from many chronic diseases at a younger age, including type two diabetes, cardiovascular disease and renal disease.

“As such, in the event of mass infection, it is vitally important that we develop care strategies for mild Covid-19 patients in rural and remote areas, including dedicated Covid-19 clinics or in-situ field hospitals (or similar).”

Earlier this month University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences executive dean Professor Jon Watson said the virus would be around for a long time and everyone needed to learn to manage it.

“It will probably become endemic in the population – a bit like the common cold – and as we all know, colds come and go, particularly in winter months,” he said.

From tomorrow the McGowan Government has relaxed regional travel restrictions except for bio-security areas, remote Aboriginal communities and the Kimberley so it is likely tourists and grey nomads are preparing to hit the road.

During the pandemic it might be a good idea for those heading to the regional areas to include a health checklist and make themselves aware of what health facilities are available in the areas they plan to visit.

Also to keep regularly washing hands, avoiding touching mouth, eyes and nose with unwashed hands, covering mouth with sleeve when coughing or sneezing and avoiding hugging, kissing and shaking hands while maintaining social distancing.

If you are in an area serviced by the RFDS and you think you may have contracted Covid-19 you can contact them for remote consultation and advice.

Visit: https://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/contact/