Foreword: The author is a Melbourne journalist with more than 30 years experience writing for leading Australian publications. He recently tested positive for COVID-19 and was immediately plunged into a bureaucratic maze that was more unsettling than the virus. This is his story:
You have a head cold. Perhaps a bit chesty and given the current climate, you’re thinking of doing the right thing and getting tested for COVID-19.
My advice is simple: You may want to think twice.
Should you test positive, you’ll become part of an operation that frankly is laughable in its inefficiency and most concerning of all, has gaping holes in it.
My COVID tale began on a Friday when for the reasons above I went to a drive-in COVID test centre. By Sunday most of the cold I had was gone. Then a couple of days later, the first of the phone calls came.
It’s Dr One (name changed). Just letting you know you’ve tested positive. The test wasn’t highly reactive and we had to re-run it a few times but we need to treat it as a positive. The Health Department will be in touch.
I informed my partner and the one adult child that still lived at home. They were surprised and in the case of the latter clearly panicked. Not just for me, but also for themselves.
The youngest member of the family went straight off to be tested. The test came back within just a couple of hours – about the only thing that has gone right. And of course, it was negative. So we shipped her off to isolate elsewhere.
Meantime Dr Two (name changed) had rung. Just letting you know you’ve tested positive. The test wasn’t highly reactive and we had to re-run it a few times but we need to treat it as a positive. The Health Department will be in touch.
Did Dr Two know that I’d already heard from Dr One?
No. Nobody else will have called you.
Well they have.
Never mind, the Health Department will be in touch. And they were… From then on… Most of the time twice, an hour or so apart… For the duration.
What is a serious diagnosis for some people was not causing me any issues from a health point of view but from a personal viewpoint, the shambles was snowballing.
Indeed, pretty soon it more resembled an episode of a mockumentary… The Office: Pandemic Edition, anyone?
From the initial call, I anticipated the tracking procedure might be challenging. So, I prepared…
Working from home I had the digital tools to bring up my electronic footprint from various accounts and credit card, my exercise and cycling apps, my digital diary, text and phone times and dates, etc.So when Debbie (name changed) from the Department of Health rang — on a private number by the way (that’s important later) — I was armed and data-rich.
Working from home since lockdown, there weren’t that many movements to track. A couple of regular appointments at a business nearby and a full day at another inner city location.
No restaurants obviously… No entertainment venues. Add to that, just a couple of anti-iso walks with the dog and the better half.
Indeed, I was looking for a magic bullet. The Department would know where I’d got it.
How far would they like to go back? Just two weeks from my test. Piece of cake. I went through the diary. I consulted the exercise apps. I’d recalled a trip or two to the shops. One to a hardware. One to the dry cleaners. And a couple of Uber trips.
While I was a little concerned when the tracker immediately dismissed the Uber trips, I had all the info. She was complimentary.
You’ve got a good memory, most people can’t recall more than a few days back. And you can even tell me when you went to the dry cleaner nearly two weeks ago.
I used my EFTPOS statements, I said.
My credit card and bank accounts.Oh, that’s clever, we haven’t thought of that…
Suffice it to say, at that point I gave up any belief of them tracking down the contact that potentially gave me COVID — even if I had also given details of a trip including one takeaway drive through.
It gets worse.
By now it’s Thursday and the Heath Department is on the phone again… We can’t reach your partner or your daughter. They’re not answering.
Now, my partner is a busy woman.
Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. She, like many executives in this challenging time, is working at full tilt. At home, asymptomatic, she was triple-screening and sat at the other end of the house. Indeed, she’d been out of the house even less than I had.
My daughter is a typical Millennial. Communicates via text, rarely answers her phone and never, ever a call from a private number.
I explained to whatever Health Department’s name was this time: Can you leave a message with a return number? Or send a text.
Good luck then. That’s what I do when I need to contact them!
At this point I’ll ignore the duplication of this discussion with another health official later that day and move on to the escalation.
Private number again. Full bureaucratic threat mode down the phone — If I can’t reach your partner (She’s working 15m from me in the same house), we will have to send the Police around for a welfare check.
Me: So give me a number and I’ll have her call you.
I’ll have to check with my manager if I can do that…
Eventually I get a number, and my partner calls.
The result? As she’s fine, no test (just isolation) is required and, of course, we won’t need to send the police around.
But you guessed it: A short time later…
Knock, knock, knock… Hello, I’m Senior Constable… Oh, FFS.
The officers were polite and asked if we needed anything. Just doing their job – shame the department charged with administering the contact was failing.
A few days on, there’s been more doubled-up calls, they’re still not leaving numbers for my partner to call back nor, as suggested, texting my daughter. But fortunately there hasn’t been more police contact. Well, some police contact, which I’ll come to.
The procedure to come out of COVID isolation is not re-testing, as many would expect. You see, even once you’re well, the chances are you’ll test positive thanks to the antibodies your body produces to beat the virus.
So, daily (or twice daily in my case for most of time) you’ll get a call (you guessed it, from a private number) to check on your symptoms. Given that I’d had none of most of the normal COVID trademark symptoms, the calls didn’t take long.
Of note however is that towards the end of this procedure one health official noted the call would be recorded. None of the others did this before or after. So are they recorded or not?
And now, just one week or so after my test and less after the positive result, I have no symptoms and have already received a written all-clear from COVID and isolation … Without seeing a doctor or health professional face to face through the whole process. Does that worry you just a little bit?
Meantime, my healthy partner and stepchild are still required to isolate until a full two weeks after my positive result. It’s simply madness…
And I’m not finished quite yet…
A few days before my all-clear, I had a call from a Detective Sergeant Didn’tgethename who instructed me I would receive a text that would allow the police to determine my location.
All I had to do was click on the link. Which, failing to learn my lesson on being a concerned citizen, I dutifully did.
The day of my all-clear, my second call from the Health Department was from Annabelle (name changed) who asked me if I’d received a text from the Police and could I screen capture it and email it to the Health Department…
You guessed it. The Health Department have just learned about it and thought perhaps it might be a scam.
The good news is this is now standard procedure. And takes the place of a visit – the one we got anyway. At least I don’t need to change my EFTPOS services (You know, credit cards, bank accounts, etc…).
COVID has had tragic consequences for some.
I stress our family hasn’t been affected health-wise and we send our very best to those less fortunate that have. But it has cost us peace of mind, angst and at least two weeks of expensive accommodation for a 20-something who is close to important university exams.
And I’m not even going to talk about the flow-on issues for my colleagues and business associates I had contact with who have had to go through the testing and isolation procedure (And yes, thankfully, as far as I know they’re all negative).
Privacy issues have been quoted as reasons for poor communication and at the same time have been trampled on throughout the process.
The fact that you can ‘recover’ without a medico physically checking you off is madness.
Like I said at the start. If you’re feeling sick. Don’t test. Stay home, stay away from others and get well. Or, if God forbid you get seriously ill, go to hospital.
Government may have been praised for the public order part of handling of the COVID-19 lockdown but my experience of the rest of the COVID process is alarmingly flawed.