Long COVID patients will face worsening waits for support as one of Victoria’s limited number of hospital clinics prepares to close its doors, with a loss of Commonwealth funding blamed.
The Victorian Health Department has estimated that more than one in 200 Victorians, or roughly 40,000 people, have suffered from severe long COVID this year, but GP and hospital services for those living with the debilitating chronic condition are not being adequately funded.
It’s estimated that tens of thousands of Victorians could be living with a severe form of long COVID.Credit:Justin McManus
Dr Mike Freelander, a federal Labor MP and paediatrician who has been chairing an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into long COVID, said Australian hospitals were having to find money and staff out of their existing budget and workforce to fund their long COVID clinics.
“They’re doing it more for altruism, than getting any separate funding for it,” he said.
The Long COVID Rehabilitation Service at the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg recently shut new patients and will stop operating entirely on December 23. It has treated almost 300 people since it opened.
Patients are being told to access alternative support through their GP.
The clinic has been receiving funding from the Commonwealth as part of the agreement that shared COVID-related hospital costs equally between federal and state, according to the Victorian government. That funding agreement ends on December 31.
But Federal Health Minister Mark Butler said states would still be eligible for public hospital services for COVID through the existing hospital agreement, in which the Commonwealth contributes 45 per cent of running costs.
“It is clear we need a focused national response to the phenomenon of long COVID – this work is being led by the Department of Health,” Butler said.
The closure is occurring as COVID infections in the community have been on the rise again, and after state and federal governments agreed to lift pandemic rules allowing the virus to spread more freely.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said in September, as national cabinet decided in September to end to mandatory COVID-19 isolation, that he did not expect long COVID to impact Australia as severely as it had overseas.
But those running Australia’s long COVID clinics are already reporting they are being overwhelmed by demand.
The Alfred hospital has a wait list about 100-patients long, and the Royal Melbourne Hospital has an 11-month wait list.
A “post COVID-19” clinic at the Northern Hospital is no longer operating.
“It’s like the world moved on, but for some people it actually hasn’t,” said company chief executive, Kit, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of impacting his livelihood. He is one of the patients who will again be searching for specialist help come December.
The new father had just got out of bed for the first time in 30 hours when he spoke to The Age on Monday morning, on the way to work. He’d been sleeping and resting since Saturday afternoon. Before he got COVID, he’d been comfortably working 12-hour days.
“When I first got it, it was very mild and didn’t really feel like it was anything other than just a flu or a cold,” Kit said.
“Then about six weeks later, I noticed this really intense fatigue setting in, and my energy level went down to about 40 per cent of what it normally was.”
The IT specialist also developed a string of other “weird” symptoms – aches in legs and head, brain fog and what felt like “mini strokes”.
After a string of tests to rule out other causes, he finally had his first appointment at the Austin’s long COVID clinic last Friday.
“What it gave me was hope,” said the 37-year-old. “The exercise physician said she’s had people who came in my situation who are now running.”
Kit said long COVID patients were being failed by politicians, and he was disappointed they had stopped talking about the pandemic because it wasn’t considered politically popular.
The Victorian Health Department has warned that more funding is required for hospitals and GPs to deal with COVID-related illness. In a submission to the parliamentary inquiry, it called for new dedicated Medicare items for long COVID. Currently, people need to have symptoms for six months before being eligible for a co-ordinated care plan.
Some have suggested that most cases of long COVID can be managed by a GP.
Dr Freelander said there was also a question about the need for more long COVID clinics, given the lack of effective known treatments for the condition.
“[Often] it’s a matter of providing mental health support, making sure there aren’t COVID complications that need to be treated and perhaps setting up rehabilitation programs,” he said.
A state government spokesperson said the Victorian government was working with the Commonwealth “on funding options to ensure Victorians can access the care they need to manage the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and help them on their recovery”.
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