Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly downplayed long COVID while justifying ending isolation requirements, medical specialist says

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A leading medical specialist and long COVID patients say the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has downplayed Australia’s long COVID condition while justifying an end to national isolation requirements.

Steven Faux, who runs a long-running COVID clinic at a Sydney hospital, called the comments “unusual” and akin to “pulling the sheet over your head”.

At a press conference last month when the mandatory isolation end date of October 14 was announced, Paul Kelly said health authorities were still assessing the extent of long COVID in Australia.

“We don’t see a major picture of the long COVID,” he said.

“For the majority of Australians, we weren’t exposed to COVID until we had at least two vaccines.

“We know that the main risk factors for long COVID are having had an infection before vaccination, being unvaccinated, having severe illness, and having other types of COVID that weren’t not Omicron.”

Prof Faux, who co-directs the long-running COVID clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, said Prof Kelly’s comments did not accurately represent the patients presenting to his practice.

“Most of the time we see people who have [COVID-19] in December and it’s the Omicron wave… and the majority we see are vaccinated,” Prof Faux said.

Long COVID still a risk

The rehabilitation and pain physician pointed to international research that showed those who were triple vaccinated and infected with Omicron had a 5% long COVID rate.

“It’s not a major issue, unless you consider that over 10 million Australians have had COVID,” he said.

“This is not insignificant considering that the public health services are at full capacity.”

St Vincent’s clinic has been inundated with hundreds of people seeking help, with some specialists booked until the middle of next year.

“We’ve had phone calls from Victoria, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland about people wanting to come and we’ve turned them away,” Prof Faux said.

Professor Faux says the NSW Department of Health has estimated around 57,000 people in the state have long COVID.(Provided: Professor Steven Faux)

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Aged Care told the ABC that Professor Kelly’s comments were based on research carried out overseas and pointed out that people who were vaccinated were less likely to develop long COVID symptoms.

“Additionally, studies have shown that infection with the Omicron variant is less likely to cause long-lasting COVID symptoms than infection with the Delta variant.”

Comments not based on data, say advocates

The CMO’s comments were met with sadness and anger from long-time COVID advocates, who say patients like them are neither seen nor heard.

“He has no data on which to base these claims,” said academic Pippa Yeoman.

“He’s making a political statement about how smart they were to close the borders and get everyone vaccinated and say that means we’ll be different [to other countries]. If you make a complaint, you must be able to substantiate it.”

Dr Yeoman is a member of the Australia Long Covid Community Facebook group, which has around 2,600 members.

An image of Pippa Yeoman in front of a painting, wearing a green blouse and glasses.
Dr Yeoman was unable to work for five months after his COVID-19 infection. She developed long COVID despite being triple vaccinated and having no previous medical conditions.(Provided: Dr. Pippa Yeoman)

The group collected survey data on its members with the aim of presenting the information to an upcoming parliamentary inquiry into long and repeated COVID infections.

Members said their preliminary analysis of data from nearly 300 survey respondents showed the vast majority had been double-vaccinated before developing long COVID and had been infected during the Omicron wave.

There is no official national data on the number of people with long COVID in Australia and not all states have a dedicated long COVID clinic, making it difficult to quantify the number of people with the disease. or the impact it has on their lives.

The Department of Health and Aged Care said analysis of health data had begun in order to help develop a national response to the long COVID.

“The Department is also working with states and territories to better understand the prevalence of long COVID in Australia,” he said.

Calls for a national plan

However, Dr Yeoman said the government was not telling Australians enough about the risks.

“A sane person who trusts the government thinks the long COVID is not in the realm of possibility for them,” she said.

“If I was a person who knew that if I got sick I had a 5% chance of getting something pretty awful, I could weigh that up on whether I got on a train without a mask.”

Professor Faux spoke of the need for a national plan and welcomed the parliamentary inquiry, but estimated it would take between nine months and a year for resources to be deployed following any recommendations .

“We ran away very early [in the pandemic] planning very aggressively,” he said.

“Now we are coming to the end of it all and there is a tail to this disease, but the planning is freezing in its speed. So why is this?

“Does this mean that people with disabilities and disability are less important than able-bodied people?

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