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Shortage of face masks, gloves prompts Tri-City, New West doctors to act

Fraser North Division of Family Practice, which represents doctors in Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and New Westminster, set up its own COVID-19 testing station and doctors are seeing patients virtually
Dr. Ali Okhowat of Coquitlam prepares a pharyngeal swab kit at a COVID-19 clini
Dr. Ali Okhowat of Coquitlam prepares a pharyngeal swab kit at a COVID-19 clinic in New Westminster. Okhowat, who has played a key role in launching the clinic, says they have been swamped with patients since it opened March 16. Fraser North Division of Family Practice opened the testing site so doctors wouldn't have to do COVID-19 swabs in their own offices where they are short of personal protective equipment, such as gloves and masks.

A shortage of face masks, gloves, goggles and other protective equipment is prompting Tri-City and New Westminster doctors to hold virtual appointments with patients and set up a COVID-19 testing site so potentially infected patients don’t need to come to their offices.

Across North America, frontline health care professionals have been crying out for personal protective equipment to avoid contracting COVID-19, and local family doctors are facing the same problem.

To make a virtual appointment with a Tri-City or New West doctor go here.

Considered small businesses, family doctors aren’t supplied by the health authorities, so they have to order their own equipment. The problem is that gowns, booties, gloves, protective eyewear and face masks are on back order because everyone is trying to get access to them.

To deal with the problem during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fraser North Division of Family Practice — which represents 436 physicians, including local family doctors and MDs working in emergency rooms at Port Moody’s Eagle Ridge Hospital and New Westminster’s Royal Columbian Hospital — launched a virtual doctor’s office website using the telemedicine program and opened their own COVID-19 testing clinic, with approval and equipment from Fraser Health.

It was a solution that became urgent as COVID-19 numbers were beginning to grow and doctors were dealing with cases while working unprotected from the highly infectious virus, according to Kristan Ash, executive director of Fraser North Division of Family Practice.

“We have had test positives in clinics where doctors didn’t have proper equipment since mid-February. We had to find a solution,” Ash told The Tri-City News.

Anyone can use the assessment tool and the virtual clinic is currently seeing patients in less than five minutes.

Since it was set up March 16, more than 1,300 people have completed the screening tool and 398 have had a virtual visit, reducing the number of in-person visits to 242. And while Ash said she can’t reveal the number of COVID-19 tests or positive cases, as that information is handled by the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), she said she’s confident the virtual system is meeting patients’ needs while also keeping doctors safe.

For example, the virtual clinic has been dealing with a number of people with symptoms such as shortness of breath, which can be a COVID-19 symptom or a symptom of from asthma or even anxiety.

Being able to speak to a doctor, even virtually, to get a diagnosis and advice is helpful, while those who meet provincial guidelines for COVID-19 testing, such as health care workers, emergency responders and pregnant women in their third trimester, can be referred to the newly established clinic for a test.

Ash said the site isn’t open to the general public and there are strict protocols to eliminate infection. For example, patients who arrive after being given a testing time are met by a nurse, who escorts them into the clinic after they deposit their phone into a sealed bag and don a face mask. A physician takes a swab, which is sent to the BC Centre of Disease Control lab for testing; patients are contacted within 24 hours if they have a positive result.

(Those who test negative and don’t get a call within 24 hours are asked to wait for 72 hours before calling for their results, according to the BCCDC website.)

Meanwhile, those who use the virtual doctors clinic will find it easy to use while doctors are quickly adjusting to the idea of meeting their patients online, Ash said.

“Family physicians have been advocating on this since January, raising concerns, and so I’m so grateful to them for all that they’ve done,” she said. “Hopefully, we will be able to flatted the curve.”

Meanwhile, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and New Westminster doctors still need personal protective equipment. If you can donate new, packaged masks, gowns, protective eyewear, gloves and booties, bring it to their nearest doctor’s office, Ash said. Calling ahead is recommended before dropping off the materials.

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