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HomeNewsBehind the scenes of COVID-19: the Public Health Unit

Behind the scenes of COVID-19: the Public Health Unit

Harking back to January many were still living their lives as normal, enjoying the Sydney summer blissfully ignorant of what was around the corner.

Public Health Unit Physician Dr Jo Cochrane was ready to embark on some much deserved leave, concerned that when she returned in the three weeks’ time, the landscape might be very different.

It was - the District’s Pandemic Plan had been enacted.

“We often have to respond very rapidly to outbreaks of other conditions but generally they are short lived,” Jo said.

“This is the first time in recent years we have had to have such a sustained response that has gone outside of our usual capacity because of the number of cases and intensity of follow up required.”

Speaking at the District’s COVID-19 call centre, Jo and her team have had the unenviable task of breaking the news to COVID-19 positive patients, but that is just the start of the work.

“We receive the COVID notifications here and follow up with positive cases, interview them by phone to determine what their symptoms are, what their risk factors are, where they have been and where they might have got it or been in contact with another case,” she said.

“We advise them on isolation and give them information but the second part of that is identifying and contacting their close contacts.

“This is the most important part of our work. It is the combination of social distancing and restriction with the isolation of cases and quarantining of their close contacts that has been able to stop the spread of COVID.”

As the COVID curve swelled, the Public Health Unit surged – the team expanded to meet the needs of the community with staff from across the district and disciplines uniting under the PHU banner.

“We’ve had dental staff, we’ve had exercise physiologists, there’s nursing staff from different backgrounds or people who have been retired – supported by our experienced clinical nurse specialists, public health physicians, other communicable disease team members and immunisation nurses and we’ve all pulled together and done very well,” Jo said.

Clinical Nurse Specialist Troy McNeill is one of the 20 staff who man the phones at any time – a very different front in the fight against the virus than the one people have seen on the news, but equally as important.

“It’s not an instinctive nurse thing to be able to pick up and do an interview over the phone, you lose a lot of your visual cues that you would normally have,” Troy said.

“A lot of resources have gone into training the surge staff to ensure they have the knowledge, skills and attributes to complete case interviews.

There are generally a couple of responses to being given a coronavirus positive result: there’s either silence at the other end of the phone or there’s a lot of swearing, or there’s tears.
Troy McNeil, Public Health Unit Clinical Nurse Specialist

“We explore those emotions with them, you’ve got to give people the time to process the news about their diagnosis those emotions and what that means for them, but importantly we need all the information out of them as quickly as possible too so we can control the risks going forward.”

Troy said while the hours have been long and the workload at times appeared to be impossible, she was committed to playing her role in guiding us all to safety.

“One of the things we are trained to do in public health is to deal with the next pandemic,” she said.

“This pandemic has given us our once in a life time opportunity to do that. Everyone has given 100 per cent and I’m proud to be part of the team.”

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