Long COVID clinics ‘inundated’ with patients, and doctors can’t cope

Australia’s long COVID clinics are so under-resourced patients are waiting almost a year for treatment, as the Victorian government warns it will struggle to care for the growing number of patients without extra federal funding.

In a submission to a federal inquiry, the Victorian government revealed the first official modelling of long COVID, and said the disease affected 218,000 Victorians, of whom 41,000 had a severe form.

Professor Steven Faux is a co-lead of the long COVID clinic at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney.Credit:Brook Mitchell

Doctors at long COVID clinics across Australia told The Age and the Herald they were unable to cope with the caseload.

“We have been inundated – because of limited resources,” said Professor Steven Faux, co-lead of the long COVID clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. “We’ve only got capacity to open one day a week. We’ve not got the staff, we can’t get them. I can’t find physios, I can’t find psychologists.”

St Vincent’s has an 11-month waitlist, as does the clinic at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. The Age and the Herald have learnt the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg is closing its clinic later this year after it ran out of funding.

“There are very limited resources and large demand,” said Associate Professor Lou Irving, head of the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s long COVID clinic. “[The resources available] is less support than they need.”

The situation is far worse in regional Australia. After seeing hundreds of patients, including many Indigenous Australians, left sickened for months by the virus, Dr Sumitha Gounden established a long COVID clinic in Orange. “There are no resources at all,” she said. “There’s no one, it’s only me.”

She is the only doctor consistently treating long COVID in her entire district of 276,000 people.

“I should not be covering the district,” she said. “These patients are CEOs, triathlon runners, business people – at the peak of their life, having long COVID, they are not able to function. I can’t dismiss them.”

Children seem at lower risk – but even with lower numbers the system is struggling.

“We don’t have ongoing funding for our clinic,” said Dr Shidan Tosif, a consultant paediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital’s long COVID clinic. “It impairs our capacity to support children – which is not how it should be.”

The barriers have left many with long COVID frustrated and desperate.

Karen Felder spent three months seeing doctors, none of whom could help. One hospital offered her exercise therapy, which she said she couldn’t do because she was bed-bound.

“There is no interest, no motivation, no focus from the government, no direction and no funding,” she said.

Professor Steven Faux and Dr Morgan Hee (left) meet with long COVID patient Payton Jacobs in March.Credit:Louise Kennerley

“I got to the point where I stopped seeing doctors. The gaslighting is incredible. It’s making me sicker, to get this pushback and to not be believed.”

Eventually, she was forced to seek treatment overseas at a private long COVID clinic in Britain. That country has spent almost $170 million on 89 national long COVID clinics.

The Australian government commissioned the parliamentary inquiry into long COVID in September and its findings will inform a national response.

“State and territory health departments have primary responsibility for the public health system,” the federal Health Department said in a statement. “Accordingly, the establishment of long COVID clinics are funded by state and territory governments.”

In its submission to the federal inquiry, the Victorian government called for increased federal health funding to “ensure adequate care for long COVID without negatively impacting other hospitalisation care needs”.

Victoria also called for a national commitment to prevent long COVID by reducing viral transmission.

If Victoria’s modelling is accurate – and there remains great uncertainty about the true rate of long COVID – the state faces huge pressures to its health budget. “If only a third of those people are restricted from going back to work, it’s going to have an enormous drain on Victoria,” Irving said.

When many long COVID patients fall sick, don’t get better and are unable to work, they discover they fall between cracks in Australia’s social safety net.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme only covers permanent disabilities – and to qualify for Jobseeker people need to be actively searching for a job. To qualify for chronic disease care, symptoms need to linger for at least six months.

Kirsty Yeates’s long COVID means she can’t work; she has run out of sick leave. To survive, she is taking money out of her mortgage. Her GP has told her she cannot get a referral to a long COVID clinic until she’d had symptoms for six months.

Other patients with the disease in regional areas told The Age and the Herald there simply were no services at all.

“It is a national disgrace that people who are seriously ill and disabled by long COVID – especially those in rural and regional areas, and Indigenous communities – can’t get the health care they desperately need,” said journalist Tracey Spicer, who has long COVID after catching the virus in January.

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