Medical, nursing and health students from Melbourne will be banned from completing placements at Ballarat Health unless they relocate to Ballarat or another stage three area for the duration of their placement.
The BHS decision came in response to concerns raised by local GPs and the Ballarat Australian Medical Association branch that students travelling from Melbourne COVID-19 hotspots could bring more cases of coronavirus to the city, risking not only staff and potentially vulnerable patients in the health service but spread the disease through the wider community.
Last week two nursing students from Ballarat, one of whom had been working at BHS, tested positive to COVID-19. The other had travelled throughout the region, staying with friends and in a Federation University residence at Mount Helen before returning to Melbourne where she and her boyfriend tested positive.
Local GP Dr Shantini Thevathasan, who works at Federation University Health Centre and teaches medical students at the University of Melbourne Rural Clinical School, wrote to BHS chief executive Dale Fraser on Monday after being made aware of the two student cases and the exemption loophole last week.
She said the cases highlighted that although most of their course is online, nursing students were allowed to travel to and from Melbourne to do pracs and placements and come in and out of their rooms in residential living despite travelling from a hotspot.
And it raised broader questions about the safety of commuters across all industries travelling into Ballarat from COVID-hotspots including Melbourne, Geelong and Bendigo.
The decision to limit student placements to those from stage three areas came as Ballarat confirmed four new COVID-19 cases, bringing the city's total to 47 including 22 active cases.
Dr Thevathasan said while qualified doctors, nurses and allied health professionals were allowed essential worker exemptions to travel to Ballarat for work and it would be impractical to ban them, students should be a different case.
"Students are a different category. They are still learning, still not fully qualified. We have nothing against students. We want you to come, we welcome you, but if you come from an area of high COVID-19 prevalence you are actually putting our community at risk," she said.
Even with regular testing, cases are not always picked up early or in a timely way to prevent an outbreak and Dr Thevathasan said that could put at risk the ability to adequately staff hospitals and health services if staff exposed to the virus needed to be quarantined while awaiting test results.
She said if the ban on students from stage four areas resulted in staff shortages, assistance could be requested at a federal level, as Melbourne hospitals have done.
St John of God Hospital decided four weeks ago to stop student placements. The only exception is final year medical students from Notre Dame University who live in Ballarat. Rural medical schools had also told students not to travel to Melbourne.
"This is not just about health care because one in five people with coronavirus are asymptomatic for the duration of their illness, meaning that person going up and down to Melbourne with no symptoms may be spreading the virus," Dr Thevathasan said.
"What is at risk is if we get an outbreak we will probably have to move to stage four and nobody wants that, nobody wants an outbreak in aged care like Melbourne, and nobody wants hundreds of health care workers isolated on furlough."
Dr Thevathasan and AMA Ballarat chair Associate Professor Mark Yates welcomed the quick response from BHS.
"BHS' move is a very good one and we can only acknowledge the fact that of all the health services around the regions, BHS is the one moving faster than anyone else," Dr Yates said.
"DHHS has not yet been clear. They have said final year students can move around and get essential worker permits and I think that's a mistake, but BHS, as it has done so many times before such as introducing masks for staff two weeks before DHHS ... is three steps ahead which is what we have to be if we are going to turn the pandemic."
Dr Yates said there had been no cases of qualified health care staff bringing the virus into Ballarat since lockdowns began in Melbourne in March. "The degree of community spread is high at the moment so we have to be doubly vigilant and so far we have been able to manage that as a health professional group."
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Premier Daniel Andrews said on Wednesday that analysis of COVID-19 infections among health workers showed most had not contracted it in the workplace.
Committee for Ballarat chair Michael Poulton echoed the medicos' broader warning about travel and said he would be willing to help pull city leaders together to find accommodation and other support for those opting to relocate to finish their placements or continue working in other industries. "If you are going to be working in Ballarat let's find accommodation for those people so they can stay here for the five weeks left of this part of the lockdown. It's a small sacrifice to make," he said.
Ballarat Health Services failed to comment by deadline.
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