Coronavirus: ‘I have never washed my hands as much in my life’

The view from a doctor’s surgery: Patients are ringing in if they have symptoms

‘Panic is not going to help anybody,’ says Dr Joe McEvoy, one of two doctors at Bayview Medical in Derry. Photograph: Freya McClements

‘Panic is not going to help anybody,’ says Dr Joe McEvoy, one of two doctors at Bayview Medical in Derry. Photograph: Freya McClements


A large bottle of hand sanitiser sits on the counter at Bayview Medical Centre in Derry.

It has always been there, explains receptionist Sharon McGonagle, but in the last week they have gone through two bottles. “Every patient who walks through those doors is using the hand sanitiser.”

As The Irish Times enters, a patient squirts it onto her palms; when she leaves, she pushes the door open using her elbows, rather than her hands. “We’ve even had some patients come to pick up prescriptions wearing blue surgical gloves.”

So far, 12 cases of coronavirus – also known as Covid-19 – have been confirmed in the North, and 24 in the Republic. “In the waiting room, everyone’s talking about it,” adds McGonagle.

Among them is Marie Hutton. “I have never washed my hands as much in my life,” she tells The Irish Times. “I’m really panicking.” Her husband is on a high dose of immunosuppressants; as such, he is regarded as particularly at risk. “I’ve been washing my hands so much they were nearly cut, and I had to use hand cream. If you had any cuts the virus could get in that way too,” she explains.

She has been glued to the television, watching for every piece of information, but still she has questions. “I’m supposed to be flying to Manchester on Friday, but now I don’t know whether I should go or not.” When she was out shopping she bought an extra packet of cornflakes, “just in case”.

“I’m not worried about it myself,” she emphasises. “It’s my husband.” Beside her, 80-year-old Anne Clifford explains she is also taking precautions. “If I’ve been out, as soon as I come in I wash my hands.”

Otherwise, she is unconcerned. “When you get to my age, something’s going to take you.”

It is all “hype”, says Harry Doherty; the cancellation of St Patrick’s Day parades, he believes, is “unnecessary”.

“It doesn’t affect me,” adds Shane McElhinney. “My only concern would be bringing it back to a sick person.” The government, he says, are “piling it on, making us freak out.” He and another patient discuss the fall in oil prices. “If you had a spare tank it would be handy, to stock up,” says Thomas Campbell.

“There has to be all this hype,” says Lily Kelly, “so that if it doesn’t turn out to be that big, they can say this is what we did to stop it.”

In the surgery, signs of preparation are everywhere. On the front door a notice from the Public Health Agency (PHA) is prominently displayed. “Catch it, bin it, kill it,” it reads.

An isolation room has been prepared, just in case; it smells overwhelmingly of alcohol-based cleaning products.

In Northern Ireland, the advice from the Public Health Agency is to phone your GP if you are concerned you have the symptoms of coronavirus. At Bayview, McGonagle and her colleague, Jodie Spence, answer the calls; they do not make a diagnosis, but talk through a flow chart of symptoms with callers and ask about their recent travel. If they believe a patient could have coronavirus, they advise them to go home and call the PHA 111 helpline, where they can arrange for testing.

“In the last couple of days, there has been an escalation of calls,” says McGonagle. “This morning we had three or four calls first thing, as soon as the phone opened,” adds Spence. “People were ringing saying they thought they had coronavirus.”

They believe the media coverage of the virus has played a part in this, as has the increased number of cases in Ireland. “People are now thinking maybe they could have it.”

The message from the authorities seems to be getting through; so far nobody has come to the surgery complaining of symptoms. In the waiting room, everyone knows what to do. “Stay at home, and phone your GP,” emphasises Campbell.

To their doctor, this attitude is reassuring. “Panic is not going to help anybody, so it’s actually quite wise,” says Dr Joe McEvoy, one of two doctors at Bayview Medical.

“From the population’s point of view, you do what you can and if it happens it happens, but when you’re looking at it from this side of the desk where we have 4,000 patients and two doctors, we’re thinking, how are we going to cope even a moderate rise in people with respiratory infections?”

He has “no doubt” Covid-19 will spread, and his practice will be faced with sufferers; he has stopped shaking hands with patients, though notes that patients are also avoiding this themselves.

One concern is the “sheer numbers involved, and trying to get them tested appropriately”. Advice can be conflicting; at the same time, the surgery is trying to deal with routine illnesses, condition and the end of the winter flu season.

“The long-term factor,” he points out, “is that there are so few doctors, particularly GPs. Numbers have fallen over the past few years, and I think the number of nurses, the number of health professionals, the number of hospital beds being reduced has prepared the ground in a very bad way for a potential problem here.

“At the moment,” he says, “we’re saying, what can we do to try and prepare for this and deal with it as best we can? It feels a bit like the calm before the storm.”