Indigenous and rural health services warn they're not immune from coronavirus PPE shortages

Doctors are concerned supplies of personal protective equipment are being increasingly strained amid the coronavirus pandemic, with health services in rural areas already experiencing shortages.

Global demand for personal protective equipment is surging.

Global demand for personal protective equipment is surging. Source: Moodboard

Rural and Indigenous health services are facing shortages of personal protective equipment as a surge in demand leaves doctors worried supplies are becoming increasingly scarce.

Masks, face shields, gowns, sanitisers and gloves have become highly sought after by medical professionals responding to the coronavirus crisis, leaving global supply chains strained.

The Orange Aboriginal Medical Service in NSW’s central west is among frontline services finding it harder to source the equipment.

Orange Aboriginal Medical Service Chief Executive Jamie Newman.
Orange Aboriginal Medical Service Chief Executive Jamie Newman. Source: Orange Aboriginal Medical Service

Chief Executive Jamie Newman said their clinic is trying to conserve PPE with an estimated two to four weeks of supply on hand.

“It is trying times for everybody,” he told SBS News. 

“We are bracing ourselves for the flu season (and) when we do see our clients, protective equipment is a must.”

The Australian government maintains its own national stockpile of medical supplies is in good health, after making gains through securing resources from overseas and building capacity to produce equipment locally.

But Health Minister Greg Hunt has admitted Australia was left somewhat exposed to an international shortage amid the pandemic. 

"It's difficult - around the world what we've seen is ... intense competition and that's probably a significant understatement," he said.  

"As a nation, we're doing very well - but it does mean that there are challenges."

In the United States shortages of protective equipment have even seen bidding wars break out between states over dwindling supplies. 

It’s a situation that’s been described by California's Governor Gavin Newsom as being like the “Wild West”. 

The Rural Doctors Association of Australia is pressing for more supplies for rural and regional communities bracing for the virus to hit. 

RDAA clinical lead Dr Adam Coltzau told SBS News many health services in these communities had already seen a shortage of protective equipment. 

“While there hasn’t been a lot of confirmed cases in rural and remote parts, when you’re a doctor sitting in your rooms you don’t know that,” he said.  

“We’re not using PPE unless we absolutely have to - but we don’t want to place ourselves at risk.” 

He said regional communities found it more difficult to source the supplies because of the longer delivery times of supply lines.

“There is a perception in the city that you don’t have any cases out there yet and you don’t need it,” he said.

“(But) we don’t want to feel like the doctors out in rural and remote parts of the country are left unprotected.”  

A taskforce of Indigenous health experts has also been working with the national cabinet to ensure Indigenous communities are prepared against the virus. 

National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation Deputy Chief Executive Officer Dawn Casey told SBS News a shortage of supplies was not an isolated incident. 

“There appears to be shortages everywhere,” she said.  

“Everyone is putting in the work - (but) it is extremely difficult.”

Health workers 'worried'

The Australian Medical Association has described as “very worrying” reports of health workers resorting to shopping at Bunnings to source PPE.

AMA Federal Vice President Dr Chris Zappala said doctors are “worried” the nation's health services could potentially be affected by shortages.

“Everyone around the world is trying to get the same kits at the same time with only so much capacity to produce it,” he told SBS News. 

He said colleagues had raised concerns a failure to access proper equipment could see them more at risk of being infected or passing the virus onto others.

“It is extremely important that anyone who is looking after a coronavirus-affected patient feels absolutely secure,” he said 

“We are concerned about that but agree that the governments are doing as much as they can at the moment to get that in.” 

The Orange Aboriginal Medical Service has seen no positive COVID-19 tests but is conscious of needing to continue to support vulnerable patients with complex health needs.

Mr Newman said uncertainty now surrounded when new supplies would be secured as competition makes it harder to source increasingly expensive equipment. 

“We’re in a very difficult situation at this point,” Nr Newman.

“We haven’t come back with an estimated time of arrival.” 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000. SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments.

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5 min read
Published 8 April 2020 at 3:48pm
By Tom Stayner