ABC Queensland Country Hour

AMY PHILLIPS:

But first up – and I apologise this is quite sobering – but the Federal Regional Health Minister says while fever clinics are being set up across regional Queensland, the first being Emerald, shortages of medical staff, transfer aircraft and personal protective supplies are issues all still being worked on. Mark Coulton says regional areas won't be able to cope with large outbreaks of COVID-19 and implores all residents to practice social distancing for the benefit of your vulnerable community. He says he's quite disappointed to hear of grey nomads heading north before Queensland closes its borders. But he says, overall, he does not agree that outback communities should lock out visitors.

MARK COULTON:

I think we need to be focusing on the behaviour of individuals. I think the real message is we all have a responsibility for this. Now, if the grey nomads were behaving irresponsibly and having large gatherings and hugging and kissing when they pull up at night time, that would be a big issue. But if they're keeping their distance, I don't think it's a real threat.

AMY PHILLIPS:

Same goes with airports. I understand people are able to disembark from a regional air service if they've come from, let's say, the likes of Brisbane to Mount Isa, there's no signage saying: please, disinfect yourself at least before you step out now into our community. No signs saying: please isolate yourself if you're concerned. And therefore, they are able to disperse into the community. Is that good enough?

MARK COULTON:

People that are going into those regional areas do need to have a very good reason for doing so and they need to be personally responsible for their behaviour when they get there.

The message is we need to keep regional Australia working because, to a large degree, we have the ability to keep operating. Farmers need to be working in a timely manner. You need to be spraying the weeds or planting a crop or milking your cows.

You can't just park everything up and stay at home. The more people that we can keep working, the less people who are going to be disadvantaged by losing their jobs and going onto unemployment benefits. But to do that, everyone is going to have to play their role and be responsible for their own behaviour.

AMY PHILLIPS:

This all in mind, why wouldn't regional communities shut themselves down? Can they go into lockdown? Why wouldn't they if they need to continue to make food for the rest of Australia and have very limited medical services?

MARK COULTON:

I don't know that we have the ability to have a complete lockdown. Our advantage is that we have low population.

We should be able to manage it. But everyone has got to play their part to make sure that we reduce the rate of infection.

AMY PHILLIPS:

Alright. Let's talk about what's being done in regional areas medically. How are people in regional communities being tested for suspected COVID-19? Where do they go? What do they do?

MARK COULTON:

Now we've expanded the use of telehealth so that the doctors can actually talk to you at home and talk through your symptoms and ask questions about your movements, where that may be a possibility.

That's not going and turning up at emergency or turning up in the clinic, it's phoning in and seeking advice.

We are in the process of installing and constructing fever clinics and a hundred of those will be going around Australia.

I think probably one of the first we'll see in regional Queensland will probably be at Emerald. Those procedures are working through now very quickly.

When those clinics are set up across the countryside, they will be able to - if the numbers of infections increase – deal with that to try and keep the pressure off the hospital system that also has to maintain its role in looking after people who are already ill from other regions.

AMY PHILLIPS:

And just finally, is there enough PPE, protective equipment, for medical staff in regional areas?

MARK COULTON:

Yes. Look, PPE is an issue. There is more coming in all times. And the primary health-

AMY PHILLIPS:

[Interrupts] So there's not enough?

MARK COULTON:

There is enough for the purpose that we need, but there's not enough for every facility to have a stockpile in their cupboard. But there's more coming in all the time. There’s PPE masks and equipment that is being manufactured locally as well.

AMY PHILLIPS:

Is there enough staff? What happens if doctors get ill? How are they going to be replaced in regional areas?

MARK COULTON:

So, we've changed, through the telehealth regulations, and even as late as yesterday, so particularly doctors who may be vulnerable, in the older age bracket, may be some that are carrying chronic conditions themselves, they now can do a lot of work from home, on telephone.

Doctors with young families that may be vulnerable can work from home as well.

But we're also sourcing recently retired doctors to step up and help out where they can.

I've been speaking with the Rural Doctors Association and they are working through at the moment how that might tie in with their regular process of their education.

But we are bringing in as many resources as we can. But we're also putting into play procedures so that we can protect our medical staff as best we can because you are right – we can't afford, in the smaller communities, for our medical staff to become unwell and so we are changing things on a regular basis to make sure that we can put those things into protected.

We are in uncharted territory. And as the situations change, we're actually- the governments, state and federal, are changing to adapt too.

AMY PHILLIPS:

Just finally, the RFDS has 20 planes in Queensland. They wouldn't all be in use at the same time, of course. They transfer a patient every two minutes is what is said on their website. How long might people expect to wait for an RFDS transfer?

MARK COULTON:

They're looking at sourcing other aircraft. And also, in discussions with pilots, with experience in the PC-12s or the other aircraft that the Flying Doctor use that may be underutilised at the moment, bringing them back into service. And so, they are certainly looking at that ability. As of yesterday, they have transferred 17 patients.

AMY PHILLIPS:

Yeah, but how long might people have to wait?

In 2016, my daughter and I waited 14 hours. I don't know if that's a long time or a short time. Could you expect that to blowout?

MARK COULTON:

I can't answer that question from where I sit. All I can assure people is, is that the Royal Flying Doctor Service is aware of the task that is before them and they are putting procedures and resources in play to be able to handle that as well as they can.

Media contact

Steph Nicholls - 0417 314 920