Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has opened up about the mental toll of shepherding the state through its coronavirus second wave and the “heavy burden” of knowing more people would die.
- Professor Sutton acknowledged there were “pretty significant struggles” and that he spoke to a psychologist
- He told a podcast he still got “torn apart” by decisions he knew would negatively affect people’s lives
- Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young spoke about the impact of death threats
Professor Sutton and Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young discussed the challenges of leading their states’ coronavirus responses in a podcast from the medical regulator AHPRA.
“My wellbeing struggle, and it has been a struggle really, through August, especially, was that there was not a moment of any day for weeks and weeks on end, when I wasn’t thinking about the people who were dying, the many, many people who became infected in our second wave,” Professor Sutton said.
More than 800 people have died with COVID-19 in Victoria to date and more than 20,000 have been infected with the virus — the vast majority between July and October of last year.
“We absolutely got to a point with a very severe lockdown that it was pretty clear that there’s no more that you can do, you have to let it play out over time,” Professor Sutton told AHPRA’s Taking Care podcast.
“But the ruminations on every little decision around that, knowing that more people would die, and that there was this kind of unfettered transmission across Melbourne in particular, was a really heavy burden.”
Professor Sutton said amid work days that stretched late into the night, “there was a kind of grief in being with my family and not being with my family psychologically”.
Professor Sutton acknowledged he spoke to a psychologist in order to reinforce self-care messages.
“I’m pretty free about saying there were some really significant struggles there,” he said.
“Part of the solution is to recognise that you’re not at your best, that it feels like an inescapable burden.
“The love and support of your family, there’s no substitute for it. The same for my colleagues.”
‘Nasty death threats’ and media at the door
Today marks a year since an “unprecedented” state of emergency was declared in Victoria, granting the Chief Health Officer widespread powers to enact restrictions and issue public health directives.
It came more than a month after Dr Young and the Queensland Government declared a public health emergency on January 29.
With their decisions affecting millions of people’s lives, the previously invisible health bureaucrats emerged as unlikely household names.
“I did get some pretty nasty death threats, which were a bit awful,” Dr Young said.
“There were some people who felt so harmed by some of my decisions that they went to that extent, which was just awful to think that anyone thought that there wasn’t a way to work through whatever it was that they felt they had been put in.”
A 70-year-old Sunshine Coast man faced court in January accused of sending death threats to Dr Young and Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk after missing a funeral due to COVID-19 restrictions.
But Dr Young said the response from police “and indeed from 99.999 per cent of Queenslanders” was “just fantastic”.
Professor Sutton, who does not use Facebook or have a television at home, recalled journalists arriving at his house to ask him questions and his daughter answering the door in her pyjamas.
“That just made me unbelievably angry,” he said.
The Victorian CHO said an element of celebrity — including homewares and calendars emblazoned with his face — was a “comical by-product”, which he and his family found “very strange”.
“The flipside is it comes with all of the vitriol of being in that frame … you just have to put it in the ‘it is what it is basket’, which is hopefully what I’ve done,” he said.
The decisions that left CHOs ‘torn apart’
During 2020, thousands of people lost their jobs, Victoria’s economy bore the brunt of prolonged lockdowns, families were separated by border closures and calls to mental health support lines saw huge spikes in demand.
“You get torn apart over this stuff, I continue to,” Professor Sutton said.
He said he had to acknowledge “there are decisions to be made that will affect thousands upon thousands of people and cause harms, but against an alternative … that looks more harmful”.
“But there is no path that you can take in which people are unaffected … and so you really just had to remind yourself that those accusations that harms would arise, were not invalid, they were always going to arise, you were just trying to find the least worst pathway possible,” he said.
Professor Sutton revealed his brother lost his job during the first lockdown “really as a consequence of some of the decisions I made” and he was unable to see his mother for months when limits were imposed on movement around Melbourne.
Dr Young told the podcast she was faced with “very difficult ethical issues” at the start of 2020, when clinicians had to identify a plan for refusing care if hospitals became overwhelmed.
“And I just didn’t want to go there. Because my view was let’s get ourselves in a situation that we will never have to make those ethical decisions,” she said.
Queensland’s strict border controls were in place for much of 2020, resulting in concerns confusion over border rules meant heart attack patients missed out on potentially life-saving treatment, and that delays crossing the border impacted care for other patients.
Dr Young defended border closures with New South Wales, saying “we always made it very, very clear that anyone who urgently needed care, of course, they could immediately come to Queensland”.
“But some people got the message that they weren’t able to which we just worked through very carefully to make sure so there was never an ethical issue there,” she said.
Dr Young said she lost a lot of weight due to the pressures of her job during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic “and it nearly killed me”.
She said regular exercise and the the support of her husband and children were key to keeping her going during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she knew early on was going to be much worse.
She thanked the residents of Queensland and Australia for their cooperation with restrictions as they were imposed.
“Really and truly we as a nation have done really, really well. And that’s due to the people,” Dr Young said.