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3 ways COVID-19 is affecting Australians’ health

Blog post | 24 Aug 2020

While daily infection rates remain low in most parts of Australia, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people's health in many other ways. But it's vital to look after your wellbeing so when life returns to normal, you're healthy for years to come.

Australians are skipping regular health appointments

Earlier in the pandemic, data from the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) showed there was a 10% drop in GP visits for the management of chronic disease. This equated to 96,000 fewer visits than the same period in 2019. There was also an 18% drop in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health checks.

Nearly 1 in 2 Australians live with a chronic health condition, such as diabetes, heart disease and endometriosis. If you're one of them, it's very important to keep seeing your GP to manage your health. It is safe to attend regular health appointments, with health clinics practising strict infection control, physical distancing and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

There were 31% fewer melanoma checks in Victoria during April to July than during February to April, reports a new analysis published in Clinical Cancer Research.

If you can’t get to your doctor's clinic, phone and video consultations — 'telehealth' — are subsidised for concession card holders, children under 16 and patients who are more vulnerable to COVID-19. If you need an interpreter, use the Australian Government's Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS National): 131 450.

Hand sanitiser poisoning has increased

Hand sanitiser has been a lifesaver during COVID-19, effective at killing germs if it contains at least 70% alcohol. According to the NSW Poisons Information Centre, alcohol-based hand sanitiser has also been responsible for an increase in calls about accidental poisoning.

"There were more than 1,000 calls about hand sanitiser to the Poisons Information Centre between February and the end of July, 2020," says Genevieve Adamo, Senior Specialist at the Centre. "This is 2.5 times the number of calls received for the same period in 2019. Three-quarters of those calls were regarding children under 5 years."

Ms Adamo says hand washing is preferable and hand sanitiser should be reserved for times when soap and water is not available.

NSW Health offers these safety tips:

  • Store hand sanitisers safely and out of reach of children.
  • Supervise the use of hand sanitiser by children.
  • Be aware of imported products that may not be clearly labelled and contain more toxic alcohols, such as methanol.
  • Washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is a safe and effective option.

If you suspect your child has ingested any quantity of hand sanitiser, call the 24-hour Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26, from anywhere in Australia.

Safety tips for hand sanitiser.

Mental health concerns are on the rise

Social isolation, rising unemployment and uncertainty caused by the response to COVID-19 are impacting Australia's mental health. According to the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Sydney, increased anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts and behaviours are sadly already evident.

Suicide prevention service, Lifeline Australia, reported a surge in calls from Victoria in July. Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) and Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800) have also seen increased call volumes.

The Brain and Mind Institute has forecast that, due to the impact of COVID-19, more than 19,000 suicide deaths may occur between 2020 and 2025 — plus 1.6 million mental-health presentations to emergency departments in the same period.

If your mental health is suffering, seek help. All Medicare-card holders are eligible for 10 subsidised individual and 10 group mental-health appointments per year — referred to as a Mental Health Treatment Plan.

Australians affected by the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 — including Victorians — can access an additional 10 sessions. This means you can continue to receive mental-health care from your psychologist, psychiatrist, GP or other eligible allied health worker.

The additional sessions are for people who have already used their 10 sessions through their Mental Health Treatment Plan, and who are:

  • subject to public health orders restricting their movement within a state or territory issued at any time between 1 July 2020 and 31 March 2021
  • required to isolate or quarantine under public health orders

For more information, go to health.gov.au.

Find more phone and webchat mental health support services here.

How to stay at home and stay healthy

If you're in 'lockdown', isolation or self-quarantine — or working from home — it can be challenging to keep up healthy habits. You might be used to popping to the shops for fresh produce or bench-pressing your own body weight at the gym. Try these tips.

  • Learn how to meditate (finally). Download Smiling Mind, a free mindfulness app developed for young people by psychologists and educators. It includes programs in a number of Aboriginal languages, including Kriol, Ngaanyatjarra and Pitjantjatjara.

  • Get enough sleep. Research shows that not getting adequate sleep can prevent your T-cells, a type of white blood cell, from fighting infection. Go here for tips to improve your snooze.

  • Order your groceries online. The major supermarkets offer contactless delivery. Plan your meals for the week first so you don't need to make any emergency trips to the shops. Make extra portions of meals such as soup, curry and stew and freeze them to use later.

  • Exercise intermittently at home. You don't need to sweat for an hour at a time — just move however you can, when you can. You could set reminder alarms. Ways to stay fit indoors include walking up stairs, using cans of food or water bottles as hand weights, following free online workout videos, and doing a circuit of moves such as sit-ups, squats and 'the plank'.

  • Find a new routine. Many people have routines to guide their days and provide a sense of achievement. If you feel like things are out of your control, establishing structure in your days will help offer stability and a ‘new normal’.

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