Maitiú Ó Faoláin and his wife Triona, who are both GPs, sat down at the kitchen table in the family home in Ashbourne, Co Meath, last week to have the strangest conversation of their married lives.
“When things started to get worse, I had to sit down with my wife and have a conversation about if one of us was to die from [coronavirus], who would the kids be better off with,” says Maitiú.
Keenly aware of the risks doctors face during the Covid-19 pandemic, the couple decided that Maitiú would continue to work at the Deerpark Medical Centre, but that Triona would stay at home to mind their children.
“Kids prefer their mammies,” he says. “It was a very emotional conversation. To think of leaving the kids without a parent . . . but we knew what we signed up for when we became doctors.”
GPs have dramatically changed work practices since the outbreak began, says Maitiú. Walk-in clinics have ceased, telephone and video consultations have become the norm and extra care is being taken when treating patients with respiratory symptoms.
Hospital staff face greater risk of contracting the virus than GPs do, he emphasises. “[Hospital staff] are petrified. We are at risk but we are not the highest risk of healthcare workers.
“We would all love to walk away and hide in a corner but none of us will. We will serve our community because we love our patients. We won’t leave people wanting.”
Concerns over supplies
Cork GP Dr Nick Flynn, meanwhile, said he and many other doctors – but not all – currently have enough supplies of personal protection equipment (PPE) to last until the end of the week, but concerns exist about what happens after.
"I heard HSE chief executive Paul Reid say that we buy €15 million worth of PPE each year but we are going to spend €214 million on PPE this year and €31 million of that is coming this week and it's being fast-tracked by air freight from China, " he said.
“I would be slow to be critical of anyone at this time because everyone is doing their best, but what doctors need is more clarity about what’s coming in and how is it going to be distributed.”
Guarantees about future supplies are needed, too, though they must first go to frontline hospital staff, said Dr Flynn, who runs MyCorkGP, which has four clinics in Cork city and one in the county.
Doctors in A&Es, ICUs and ear, nose and throat wards are most at risk, he says.
“The international experience shows that those who do poorly in all of this are those who are exposed to a lot of virus, what is called high viral load.”
Under the HSE guidelines, each GP is to receive a carton of PPE supplies containing hand gel, 240 surgical masks, two packs of 10 disposable gowns and 100 extended cuff-gloves.
Dr Flynn said he had sourced €5,500 worth of PPE for the 24 clinicians working at his five clinics, which serve some 15,000 patients.