COVID-19, sadly, is coming.
The emergence of COVID-19 exposure sites in Warrnambool over the weekend was a reminder current restrictions are just a way of slowing the spread of the virus while vaccination coverage increases.
While vaccination offers by far the best protection against COVID-19 and makes serious illness extremely unlikely, there are additional treatments people can use if they do develop symptoms.
South West Healthcare's clinical director of general medicine Dr James Gome spoke with The Standard to give a crash course on what symptoms to look for, what works to treat them, and what doesn't.
The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to an everyday respiratory tract infection - things like a fever, breathlessness, a dry cough and muscle aches - Dr Gome said.
"Other symptoms to look for include a runny nose, diarrhoea and nausea. It's important to know some patients have very few symptoms. Four out of five people who develop COVID have a mild illness and usually make a full recovery in two to three weeks," he said.
Dr Gome said most mild cases didn't require any medication, with plenty of rest and fluids doing the trick, but if they did then paracetamol or anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen would be the way to go. COVID-19 is caused by a virus, so antibiotics aren't effective.
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Dr Gome also warned people with other chronic conditions not to stop taking their regular medication if they developed COVID-19 symptoms. He said for people with mild symptoms who were managing serious health conditions, there were antibody therapies available, but this was something to discuss with their regular doctor.
One of the dangerous aspects of COVID-19 has been the tendency for symptoms to worsen very quickly.
Dr Gome said anyone who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 needed to keep a close eye on any sign their symptoms were becoming severe.
"The symptoms in particular that patients need to worry about are breathing difficulties and anything such as shortness of breath that might indicate low oxygen levels or the development of a respiratory infection in the chest," he said.
"If a patient progresses to develop a more serious case of COVID-19, it is usually worsening breathing symptoms they notice and that typically occurs in the second or third week of their illness."
He said if a COVID-19 patient noticed their breathing getting worse, they should seek urgent medical attention.
South West Healthcare CEO Craig Fraser said anybody who knew or suspected they had COVID-19 should call ahead before attending a hospital, so staff could prepare for their arrival. Patients with COVID-19 are kept isolated from others to stop the virus spreading throughout the hospital.
Anybody calling an ambulance because of COVID-19 symptoms should also make sure they mention their diagnosis.
In hospital there is a much wider range of treatments available to combat COVID-19 symptoms.
Dr Gome said one of the key advantages in a hospital was the "supportive care" options that doctors had, such as IV fluids and oxygen therapy. Severe COVID-19 infections damage the air sacs in a person's lungs and can lead to dangerously low blood oxygen levels, so oxygen therapy is often a life saving treatment.
There are also medicinal therapies available.
Anti-inflammatories like the steroid dexamethasone have been found to help patients recover from moderate and severe infections. Anti-viral drugs like remdesivir also helps fight severe infections and reduces time in hospital for COVID-19 patients.
Antibody treatments like the drug sotrovimab can also be used in severe cases. These therapies work by introducing antibodies similar to the ones produced naturally by the immune system, helping to fight the virus.
"We would also consider giving therapy to prevent people from developing blood clots, similar to other patients admitted to hospital when they are unwell," Dr Gome said.
In rare cases a patient's lungs become so inflamed and filled with fluid that they cannot breathe properly on their own. In such cases they can be hooked up to a ventilator, which helps them breathe while their lungs recover.
By this stage a patient would be in the hospital's intensive care unit, an area staffed by nurses and doctors who only deal with critically ill people.
What not to take for COVID-19
The pandemic has spurred several supposed miracle cures, with promoters pushing them as alternatives to vaccination. Dr Gome urged caution when it comes to alternative therapies.
There are many things not recommended because there is no evidence that they are helpful and they could potentially be harmful for patients with COVID 19. "These include hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, high dose aspirin, interferon, and colchicine," he said.
"These medicines can be used in humans for particular conditions but there is no evidence or validated research that says these are helpful in treating patients with COVID or preventing complications from COVID."
Vaccination the best medicine
The best way to avoid a severe case of COVID-19 was to get vaccinated, Dr Gome said.
"It's sad, but the majority of patients with severe illness unfortunately haven't been vaccinated. That is what we are experiencing in Victoria, around the nation and overseas," he said.
"It's natural for people to worry, but there is clear evidence that vaccination prevents severe disease and that the small risks associated with the vaccinations are far outweighed by the huge benefits for the person who gets the vaccine and the broader community."
Dr Gome said Warrnambool's impressive vaccination rates would make a huge difference when Victoria relaxed its restrictions.
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