Coronavirus fears cause influx of patients to private clinics

Medical clinics across Apia are reporting an influx of seasonal flu patients, with some seeing twice or even three times the usual amount of patients they expect for this time of the year. 

The Samoa Observer interviewed doctors from seven private clinics, and five confirmed they had experienced significantly higher patient numbers presenting flu symptoms, which are very similar to the symptoms of the new virus, COVID-19 causing global disruptions and death.

Lauano Dr. Herbert Peters said at his Pesega clinic, he is seeing around 50 patients a day with flu symptoms, up from just 20 to 25 just weeks ago.

He said common symptoms look exactly like seasonal flu, and after investigating patient’s travel history and contacts with travellers, he has not felt he needed to refer anyone for a COVID-19 test. 

“I think people are just a bit more cautious with what is going on,” he said.

“They mainly need education on staying home, taking care of their common cold. If they are coughing a bit more than normal and have a fever they will need antibiotics and paracetamol and to be seen again with no improvement."

Sala Dr. Esmay Ah Leong of the Samoa Healthcare Medical Clinic said her patient numbers have doubled in the last three months. 

And while part of the increase could be attributed to the move to a bigger and newly refurbished clinic, her patient numbers last week tripled. 

“The majority of these cases were flu complaints.  This week (last week) alone, I had seen and treated a lot more bronchiolitis and bronchitis, keeping in mind the clinical presentations of COVID-19.  

“I have yet to see a severe form of S.A.R.S (severe acute respiratory syndrome) but from my assessments, the cases of the flu were mostly mild to moderate in severity of symptoms.”

For her, the influx shows people are taking necessary precautions with their health and paying more attention to their conditions. Her advice for people with fever, cough, or any kind of ill health is to stay home.

“Social distancing and self-quarantine will help us in the long run,” she said.

“It is a learning process for all of us but I take every opportunity to educate and limit the unnecessary use of antibiotics in these situations.  I also find that people do listen and appreciate when we take the time to explain and become available for questions.” 

Enosa Health Clinic’s, Dr. Joe Enosa, said he has been seeing 50 to 80 patients a day, all with flu symptoms up from just 20 or so only three weeks ago, on top of his regular patients with chronic and non-communicable diseases.

“It’s difficult to differentiate between the two (seasonal flu and COVID-19), hence we rely on their history, if they travelled overseas in two weeks or came into contact with any who has overseas. But I have not come across a case like this.

“So people who previously had the flu and never gave it much thought, now with COVID-19 it appears nearly every sniffle and sneeze has people running to the doctors for reassurance, making sure they don’t have the COVID-19.”

He said while ideally most people with a common cold would treat their illness without a doctor’s help, he can appreciate the level of anxiety among the population is driving them to the clinics.

“They are not medically well versed people so when it comes to their loved ones, up they come to the clinic. It’s applying undue pressure but it’s alright, once they come and we reassure them, they don’t come back.”

The Health Specialist Centre in Moto’otua is also reporting a significant increase in both bookings and walk ins. Sarah Foi, the clinical receptionist for the five doctors practicing there have had two very busy weeks prior to today, but Monday was significantly quieter than normal.

Ms. Foi suspects the state of emergency has prompted people to stay home where possible. None of the doctors have had to refer anyone for COVID-19 testing so far, she added.

Tautalatasi Dr. John Adams, who runs the Vaitele Village Clinic, said he seen high numbers of patients, mostly children, all year, in what he believes as higher numbers than this time last year.

“Parent’s awareness levels are really high now. A case they would normally just treat with Panadol at home are being brought it. This could be attributed to being more aware of COVID-19, which I think is good.

The doctor, who also holds a master’s degree in public health, said he thinks the increase in patients presenting with their flu symptoms reflects a positive change in society, and it is what meant eight people had tests done for the virus.

“It shows a lot of people are going to see their doctors, and the doctors have heightened awareness levels. This virus needs everyone to do their little part,” said Tautalatasi. 

Dr. Rexona Sheppard Taavao of Le Fomai Medical Clinic in Maluafou and Misa Dr. Navy Collins in from Collins Medical Clinic reported they had not experienced much of an increase. 

“It’s just a steady flow of patients coming in, not many more than earlier in the year,” Misa said. He said he knows people are worried about COVID-19 but they are not coming in large numbers to his clinic.

“Because of the awareness programmes I think people are just being careful and coming in to check themselves.”

All the clinics interviewed have implemented measures to screen patients for recent travel or contact with a recently arrived traveller, and are having them wait outside the clinic or ideally in their cars for the doctors to see them.

From Monday, the Ministry of Health (M.O.H.) is requiring all patients to book appointments over the phone for services at the National Hospitals to avoid the waiting rooms filling up and creating a gathering.

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