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'Stay home', health staff back from risk areas told

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South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant in Seoul

South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant in Seoul

AP

South Korean soldiers spray disinfectant in Seoul

The growing spread of coronavirus in Ireland has forced a review of guidelines on people returning to work after coming home from high-risk countries.

Until now all workers - including healthcare staff - who arrived back from affected regions could resume employment providing they did not have symptoms of the illness.

The advice then was to continue as normal, ask the HSE for guidance if they wanted it and to monitor themselves for 14 days.

That has now been amended and health workers with direct patient contact are being told to isolate themselves for 14 days if they have been in China, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Iran or the Lombardy, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont regions of northern Italy.

For all other workers, however, the original advice remains unchanged.

They would need to contact a GP only if they developed symptoms of the virus.

This contrasts with advice in the UK for travellers returning from countries such as Italy.

In the UK, people are told they should stay indoors and avoid contact with others for 14 days if they have been in the worst-hit areas of northern Italy.

In hindsight, there may have been an argument for healthcare staff and teachers to remain out of bounds for 14 days, even if they feel well.

The Clare GP and his family at the centre of four confirmed cases of the virus here would have followed the advice to resume work and school if they had no symptoms after their mid-term break in northern Italy.

Once anyone who has been in these virus-hit countries thinks they have symptoms, they should seek medical advice.

Public health doctors will then decide if they are a suspect case and if they should go into isolation and be tested.

If the guidelines are tightened for all, it would mean many more travellers who have not caught the virus abroad would needlessly quarantine themselves for 14 days, with all the disruption that would bring.

Risk

However, it would reduce the odds of somebody with mild symptoms, unaware they are a risk, potentially unwittingly passing it on before their condition worsens and makes them realise they have been circulating with the virus.

The emergence of a GP as a coronavirus victim also highlights how, if they are unaware they are infected, they can expose vulnerable patients to the virus.

A daily surgery seeing a roomful of patients, home visits and even shifts in a hospital could all be part of a doctor's week after returning from one of the worst-hit countries.

It is the natural instinct of conscientious GPs and hospital staff to continue to soldier on if they feel unwell, and this is frequently the case, regardless of any coronavirus risk.

GPs in many rural areas are in short supplym, and there is a strong sense of loyalty to patients and colleagues, so they will not call in sick.