Public hospital patients in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire will be tested for COVID-19 a week before their scheduled elective surgery.
In a scheme announced on Monday by Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, patients will be screened before they arrive at hospital, and if they are symptomatic they will be told to self-isolate until their surgery.
Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos on Friday.Credit:Joe Armao
Unless the surgery is deemed urgent, any patients who test positive will have their surgery postponed.
Ms Mikakos said testing patients before their surgery was "the best way" to protect patients and healthcare workers from the virus.
The announcement comes after outbreaks among staff in at at least a dozen hospitals in recent weeks, including The Alfred, the Northern Hospital, the Royal Melbourne, the Royal Women's, Brunswick Private, Box Hill Hospital and St Vincent's.
Tony Bartone, president of the Australian Medical Association, welcomed the initiative, but warned that the new testing program should not lead to complacency over personal protective equipment and safety protocols in hospitals.
“We still need to take all the appropriate precautions to protect our healthcare staff as best as possible, regardless of whether a test says yay or nay,” he said.
Dr Bartone said the single-test plan was not foolproof in stopping coronavirus being introduced to hospitals.
“There is a lag period between the test and the result,” he said. "You could test negative but depending on where in the incubation cycle the virus is, you could still develop it a few days later."
He said testing people before elective surgeries had been considered earlier in the pandemic, but at the time it was not considered a priority.
"With the low level of community transmission at the time, it is not the best use of scarce resources," he said.
Dr Bartone said that, even now, community testing – especially in hotspot zones, public housing and aged-care facilities – was much more important than testing patients on surgery waiting lists.
"What we really need to be doing is really seeking and reaching out to all the possible cases in the available areas where we know we've got increased transmission," he said.
"They need to be religiously tested and followed up."
Ms Mikakos said those requiring emergency surgery would not need to be tested or wait for a result.
A Sunshine Hospital nurse was infected with COVID-19 after treating a coronavirus-positive Cedar Meats worker who needed emergency care on a severed thumb.
The testing plan comes as the state reduces its elective surgery capacity to 75 per cent in case hospitals become flooded with coronavirus patients.
The state government had originally planned to allow all Victorian hospitals to return to 100 per cent of their usual elective surgery operating theatre capacity in July, but reversed the stance last week.
Ms Mikakos has encouraged people with health problems to keep seeking treatment during the crisis, despite the decision on elective surgeries.
“It's important people continue to look after their health during the pandemic – no one should put off seeking medical care if they need it. Our hospitals are safe and open to everyone," she said.
Patient advocates have called on governments to unveil a plan to catch up on surgery waiting lists.
With Dana McCauley