COVID-19 hotline quietly shuttered as NSW hit by surge in cases

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The federal government has quietly closed its dedicated COVID-19 hotline, as more Australians seek booster shots ahead of the Christmas break.

The Department of Health and Aged Care confirmed that the National Coronavirus Helpline was shuttered on December 4, as part of the end of funding for Healthdirect’s Living with COVID service.

The number of COVID-19 cases has been elevated over the past few weeks.Credit: iStock

On pages of the department’s website, still live last week, the Living with COVID service was billed as “a comprehensive support service that provides clear pathways to connect people who test positive for COVID-19 with health advice and safe and effective clinical care, based on individual risk assessment and triage”.

Callers to the hotline since December 4 have heard a pre-recorded message, directing them to instead call Healthdirect’s general triage phone number.

“The National Coronavirus Helpline is no longer in service,” the message says. “If you feel unwell, or you need COVID advice for someone in your care, you can talk to a nurse by calling 1800 022 222.”

Questions to federal Health Minister Mark Butler were referred to the department, which provided data showing calls to the helpline had slowed over this year.

From January to June the service handled an average of 18,395 calls each month. This had declined to an average of 3921 calls each month – about 130 a day – between July and November.

Dr Rebekah Hoffman, NSW and ACT chair of the Royal Australian College of GPs, said the college was not given notice the helpline would close.

“It was a fabulous source of getting clear and accurate info,” she said.

“As long as the HealthDirect line has been set up with the same availability and the same info, and as long as the patients know about it, there’s no problem. But GPs weren’t told about the change: ideally we are told before so we can inform patients.”

Hoffman said it would be good for the HealthDirect and state and federal health department websites which still direct patients to the old number to be updated.

“If you have COVID, you are already feeling quite unwell … the last thing you want to be doing is having to call multiple numbers to receive advice,” she said, noting the helpline was particularly used by older Australians.

Data indicators such as sewage monitoring, test positivity rates and hospital activity released by NSW Health earlier this month suggest the virus has been circulating at higher levels since the start of November.

Pharmacists and GPs have attributed an increase in COVID-19 booster shot appointments ahead of the Christmas break to the higher case numbers as well as the availability of the new monovalent – or “XBB.1.5-containing” – vaccines, which are better targeted to current variants of the virus.

Data published by the department last week showed more than 300,000 Australians received a booster shot in the month ending December 6.

However, fewer than a quarter (23.2 per cent) of people aged 75 and over have received a booster shot in the past six months.

In September, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation recommended a second 2023 booster shot for those over 75 and severely immunocompromised people – and asked those over 65 to consider it.

The second boosters are recommended if a person’s last COVID-19 vaccine dose or confirmed infection more than six months ago. Aged care residents do not need to wait six months after an infection to receive a second 2023 vaccine.

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