COVID-19 Testing Clinic opens for Bellingen Shire

Dr Trevor Cheney, Three Rivers Health Bellingen. Photo by Jo Keers
Dr Trevor Cheney, Three Rivers Health Bellingen. Photo by Jo Keers

A collaborative effort by the private medical and health practitioners across the Bellingen Shire has resulted in the establishment of a dedicated COVID-19 testing clinic. This drive-through clinic, situated in the former Bellorana Aged Care Facility in Watson Street Bellingen, officially opened yesterday.

In the absence of funding from the State or Federal Health Services, our trusted medical practitioners have drawn on their own resources to make this COVID-19 clinic happen.

"It was a truly collaborative coming together of colleagues in the community. After discussions between the doctors and pharmacists from across the Shire we realised something big was coming. We decided that we might not be able to expect white knights to come in and save the community. We needed to prepare to look after the community ourselves," said Dr Trevor Cheney, Three Rivers Health Bellingen.

Trevor, how did you manage to secure the Watson Street facility so quickly?

An initial meeting was called between all the private medical practitioners, pharmacists, hospital representatives, and representatives of Bellorana to discuss the community's needs at this time. It was very clear we needed to take action. Bellorana and the Royal Freemasons Institute very generously offered up the premise in Watson Street. They have cleared the space and cleaned it for this specific use. Without their support and generosity, this wouldn't have been possible.

Why is a dedicated COVID-19 testing space so necessary?

It is essential that those members of the community who have a developing potential respiratory infection do not present to their usual General Practice, the Pharmacies or Bellingen Hospital. We need to protect health workers, the hospital, and our essential services in the community. The clinic offers a safe, outdoors environment. It will operate as a drive through. We will provide assessment of each presenting person in their car, and then advise if this person fits the strict criteria for COVID-19 testing or treatment and/or quarantine. If hospital treatment is required for seriously ill patients with concerns for COVID-19, it will be provided at Coffs Harbour Base Hospital.

What are the clinic opening hours?

We are planning to have the facility open weekdays 12pm-2pm and possibly Saturday. Clinic hours may be expanded and will be determined by demand and the needs of the community as this situation evolves. Information about the COVID-19 clinic can be sourced on the Bellingen Shire Council Website. We advise that the community continue to monitor this information as the situation may change rapidly.

This is a drive though. Please - school age children are asked to absolutely stay inside their cars. It is vital we move quickly and there is no waiting or play facility.

Do members of the public require a medical referral to be able to present to the COVID-19 Clinic?

No referral is required. However, we are advising people that if they believe they may have the virus it is best to phone your usual General Practitioner first. Our experienced medical practitioners across the Bellingen Shire will be able to triage most members of the public via phone or Skype and will determine whether it is necessary to attend the COVID-19 clinic for testing assessment. There is a limit in resources for managing and testing, so we are forced to make difficult clinical decisions about who we are allowed to test. We will be clear about who we should be worried about.

It is important to stress that COVID swab testing is currently restricted to those people who have:

  • Returned from an overseas trip in the previous 2 weeks
  • Had direct contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 AND who have a new cough or fever and/or rapidly deteriorating respiratory disease. It is important to note that a cough in the absence of a fever may still be COVID-19.

There is also a special condition for health professionals dealing actively with patients.

People often imagine that medical tests are black and white. This is absolutely not the case with this test especially. Everyone needs to understand that for many the test will be useless, and the rapid clinical assessment is the main decider for the advice we give.

If I present at the Clinic- what can I expect?

There will be at least 3 people present at the clinic every day. Members of the community can drive in and a coordinator and a nurse will be present to collect initial vital health information. A doctor will then assess you, and decide whether a focussed physical examination is needed, and if viral swab testing is required. If you require a swab, medical practitioners will be wearing full protective gear.

Different doctors will be present each day as our local General Practitioners take time out from their normal clinic hours to manage the COVID-19 clinic. Every patient processed at the COVID-19 clinic will have their information forwarded to his or her usual GP.

What people can't expect is management of other health issues. In other words, don't present to the COVID-19 clinic with abdominal pain or a sore foot. This clinic is reserved entirely for potential COVID-19 infections.

There is still some ambivalence in sections of the community about the threat posed by COVID-19. What is your assessment of this threat?

Medical practitioners are taking this threat extremely seriously. In my 40 years in health care, there hasn't been anything like this. It is so important for younger and healthier members of our community to protect the elderly, vulnerable and immune suppressed by adhering to the public health guidelines around social distancing, washing hands and behaviours.

There is a lot of talk about 'flattening the curve'. Any outbreak of an infectious disease has a ramping-up period, followed by a peak of intensity, then a decline, giving a bell-shaped curve. The height of the curve is the maximum number of cases resulting from the infection and this number may well be above what the healthcare system in any country can cope with. The main aim of 'flattening the curve' is to prevent a sharp peak of cases and spread out the infection over a longer period of time so that the healthcare system will not be overwhelmed. We need to remember, Coffs Harbour Base Hospital Intensive Care Unit has a limited capacity. If there is a massive spike in the number of acute, serious cases we will not have the resources to deal with really sick people from ANY ILLNESS OR INJURY.

Please read the current public health guidelines for reducing exposure and staying healthy- published on the Bellingen Shire Council Website

What are your recommendations for the elderly, frail or immune suppressed members of our community?

I suggest that this cohort of our community take real care. Follow strictly the public health guidelines that will be updated regularly on the Bellingen Shire Council Website.

I would also advise that all vulnerable patients ensure that they receive the Pneumovax immunisation for pneumonia and the Fluvax as soon as it is released. These immunisations are free for the over 65 year olds and may protect patients with COVID-19 from secondary opportunistic bacteria taking hold. If you are under 65 and have reasons to be concerned about vulnerable lungs you will need to get a script for the Pneumovax from your GP and buy this at a Pharmacy. Unfortunately, there are some supply issues and waiting lists, but it is good to act now.

Is this new COVID-19 clinic the only place that community members can receive a COVID-19 swab test?

The Sullivan Nicolaides Clinic in North Bellingen is not able to test for COVID-19. It is highly desirable that our GP resources are not consumed with this. If a doctor determines that a patient fits the criteria outside our clinic, they will be directed to the Sullivan Nicolaides Clinic set up for testing at the Albany Street office in Coffs Harbour. It is necessary to call ahead and again on approach if attending the Coffs Harbour Clinic for safety instructions.

The Mid North Coast Local Health District is mounting COVID-19 clinics at the Coffs Harbour Health Campus and Macksville District Hospital.

Finally, what is your advice for the Bellingen Shire community?

This is big- let's work together. Think about your neighbours and family when making decisions. Remember this event is unprecedented. The events in Europe show how dire it could be if we don't stop transmission of this virus. Information and advice will change as our knowledge evolves. Be patient with your health care providers, this is all new to them too.

At this stage we are not aware of any positive test results across the Bellingen Shire. But the cases are rapidly evolving and reported numbers could lag actual infection by up to a week.

The COVID-19 virus likes close contact, hard surfaces, crowds, the cold weather, - and we are heading into winter and the flu season. So please take care. Now is not the time to have all your family visit from Sydney or wherever.

Now more than ever is the time to: eat good fresh food(including whole fresh fruit each day- not juices), focus on good sleep, avoid or reduce poisonous vices, wash your hands over and over and over, do not share cutlery, plates, cups, papers, kisses, phones. And if you are unwell, self isolate, then call for advice. This is the same advice our grandmother would have given us 60 years ago (except for the phones).