Longford GP and IMO president Dr Padraig McGarry
While there’s a certain cohort of the country that is still indifferent to the spread of Coronavirus, labelling it as ‘just a flu’ and criticising the national panic that is arising since the virus struck Ireland, it’s important to remember the more vulnerable members of society, whose lives are literally in the hands - washed or unwashed - of others.
Many of us may have strong immune systems that can fight off a virus, and the government and health officials are constantly reminding us not to panic.
But we all know elderly people , people who are sick or those who are recovering from serious illness.
“This is a virus that is spread easily,” said local GP and president of the Irish Medical Organisation Dr Padraig McGarry.
“We’re dealing with a virus which has a definite source outside of the country, but now we have a community transmission too.
“The most important thing is for everybody to be alert and to take measures with nasal hygiene when you’re sneezing and coughing, and look after your hand hygiene. Measures like that can limit the spread.
“If we can limit the spread in the community, we will be able to limit eventual hospitalisation.”
And that’s what is extremely important as the inevitable surge in cases of the virus, which is expected to occur in the coming weeks, is going to put a huge amount of pressure on health workers in Ireland.
“We are challenged in General Practice because we have to approach patients with respiratory conditions in a totally different way,” said Dr McGarry.
“We now have to change our approach and triage them. We have to ring the patient in advance. We have to bring them in individually after surgeries have closed. And we have to examine them fully gowned up in protective gear.”
General Practitioners will be “time poor” when working like this because of the time it takes to “gown up and gown down”. A 12 minute consultation could last as much as 30 minutes as a result.
“But the reason we have to do that is because we’re protecting the patients by bringing them in individually so, should they have the virus, they won’t spread it to other patients,” said Dr McGarry.
“We’re also protecting patients coming in from other people who might have it. And we’re also protecting the frontline staff because if we go down, there’s nobody to replace us.
“If the health care workers get infected, they’ll be out for 14 days minimum and there’s nobody to take their place.”
Large numbers of healthcare workers being infected will result in a greater strain on the health system and could see more people going to A&E for care, which is the last thing any health official wants.
“The first few patients who I met in protective gear this morning were quite alarmed because it brought it home to them that this is very significant,” Dr McGarry explained.
“But it’s important to remember that 80% of people who get this will have a minor illness and will get over it quite easily - younger children and teenagers especially.
“For the more vulnerable people, should they contract it, it will be significantly more dangerous. They are the elderly and those with underlying conditions. So we need to mitigate the spread of that,” he added.
“We can’t protect everybody but, with small little measures, we can certainly protect a large number of people.
“Watch your hand hygiene. Sneeze or cough into your sleeve and not your hand. Use disposable tissues. Those are the most important things we could do. Those little, incremental measures amount to a huge impact.”
This virus will be around for a while, Dr McGarry added, with a surge of cases likely to occur in the next few weeks, causing GP surgeries to change the way they operate significantly, “while this thing blows itself out”.
“Patients with urgent conditions will be dealt with but there has to be a change in the way we operate,” he said.
“Everything comes down to what extent we can contain it in our community. Individual effort will determine how widespread this will be.”