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Government moots COVID treatment text messaging system

Text messages could be part of the armoury to keep you safer if you catch COVID. The messages could be sent to at-risk COVID patients, reminding them to speak to GPs about oral antiviral treatments to prevent severe disease and potentially keep them out of hospital.

YourLifeChoices reported last month that two antiviral drugs – Paxlovid and Lagevrio – could be effective against COVID and were available for some via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). The medications are subsidised for people aged 65 and over with two high-risk factors, people over 75 with one high-risk factor and the immunocompromised.

But many people are unaware of their existence or availability and there are fears the drugs are going to waste.

Now, health minister Mark Butler is exploring ways to increase that awareness, and a text message-based system is one that is under consideration.

Read: Even mild cases can lead to long COVID, study finds

Mr Butler has confirmed he is seeking advice from the department as the government looks to ease pressure on a struggling hospital system.

The plan being considered would see anyone who tests positive to COVID receive a text message advising them to contact their doctor immediately to ask about taking antiviral drugs.

Dr Bruce Willett, vice-president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), believes the idea has merit, but warns that Paxlovid can have serious side-effects if taken alongside some common medications.

Dr Willett agrees that there is a lack of awareness about the treatments, and that there are some common misconceptions about their use that need to be addressed.

Read: Wearable device detects COVID before symptoms appear

“There’s some confusion out there in the community about the availability of these treatments and the recommendations for them,” he says. One of the issues with the antivirals is that there has been an idea that they’re there to treat severe disease, whereas of course they’re there to prevent severe disease. They need to be taken early before people get severe symptoms.”

Text messages could increase public knowledge, Dr Willett says, adding: “[Text messages] should be sent to the patient to seek advice from the GP … rather than putting GPs in a position where they have to try to chase people, which is going to be difficult.”

The need for prompt prescription of oral antivirals was a theme at the health department weekly primary care COVID-19 response webinar on 23 June.

Read: Qantas scraps another COVID travel rule

Mr Butler echoed Dr Willett’s sentiments, saying that the uptake of antivirals must improve, as governments consider whether to broaden their use to less vulnerable Australians.

“We’re seeing a lot of people go to hospital with COVID and I’m very confident, given the population profile of people in there, that if they were able … to take antivirals very quickly the chances of people going to hospital is markedly reduced,” he says.

Mr Butler also says there would be no issue with dosage supply. “We’ve got 1.3 million doses sitting in warehouses, it’s on the PBS so for most people in this population group it’s $6.80. We should be pushing it out the door.”

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