Victorian couples trying to conceive have been dealt a "devastating blow" as the highly infectious Omicron variant sparks staff shortages and surgery bans in the fertility treatment sector.
Hours after announcing a ban on all non-urgent elective surgery on January 6, Health Minister Martin Foley told reporters that IVF clinics were being contacted by authorities and asked to cancel their appointments with clients in an effort to free up more health resources.
In the days since, multiple providers have warned that the protocols – which came into effect on January 12 and are set to last 90 days, until April 12 – will disrupt some couples' procedures.
For Australia's biggest IVF provider, Virtus, IVF has been restricted to cycles commenced before January 6, or to those who are reaching in-health treatment that would render their eggs unviable.
Virtus Health Group CEO Kate Munnings told news.com.au that the "current restriction in the commencement of new IVF stimulation cycle in Victoria is devastating news for many people".
"Virtus' fertility services are limited to urgent medical fertility preservation cycles, intra-uterine insemination, embryo transfer (from a frozen/thaw cycle), ovulation tracking and induction, as well as our andrology and our fertility diagnostic and reproductive genetic services.
"It has momentous impacts on the stress and mental anguish experienced by people who are seeking fertility treatment, particularly as delays such as these can impact on their ability to have a baby," Munnings said.
The decision sparked immediate backlash online. One distraught woman, going only by the name of Melanie, filmed her heartbreaking plea to politicians and posted it to Instagram.
Melanie said "you can't have any idea what this will do to some women", claiming the 90-day ban would mean the end of some people's hopes to have a child.
"To put a blanket ban on IVF for three months ... we think Covid is a pandemic, infertility is a pandemic, and now we're dealing with both," she said.
"We listened to you in 2020 and 2021, we got double vaxxed. And you know what, I'm assuming we were probably the most hesitant people to get vaxxed. Every day we are pumping so much medication into our body, you can have no idea.
"There was no data showing how this would interact with our medication, how it would affect our ovaries and eggs, or what effect it would have on getting pregnant.
"But you know what? We trusted you, because you told us to listen to the experts. So I am begging you, please now listen to the experts. We did what we have to do."
She implored Victorian Premier Dan Andrews and health minister Martin Foley to research IVF and realise one in eight women will face infertility issues.
"Our bodies cannot be paused for 90 days," she said.
Melbourne fertility specialist and medical director at Number One Fertility, Lynn Burmeister, echoed the sentiment.
"Infertility is not a choice. I have many patients who cannot have a baby any other way than through IVF. [This ban] is effectively saying, 'You cannot have a family right now'. Patients are in tears — it's absolutely heartbreaking," Dr Burmeister told news.com.au.
While 90 days may not sound like a particularly long time, for women who have a low egg reserve or are over the age of 35, "every month is critical".
"It's not a matter of simply stopping and starting treatment — there's a lot of preparation that goes into IVF, like taking medication and vitamins, counselling and appointments.
"Egg collection for IVF in hospital uses minimal resources, patients are not admitted to wards and the instruments we use aren't used in any other surgeries."
The suspension of procedures is at odds with the state and federal government messaging, she added, that "we need to live with the virus, yet we are here in the third year of Covid with IVF on hold again".
A petition calling for Premier Daniel Andrews to reinstate fertility and IVF treatments in Victoria has drummed up more than 11,000 signatures within days.
"COVID19 (sic) continues to wreak havoc on the lives of many. For 2 years now, Victorians have been in and out of lockdown with major events cancelled and being forced to isolate away from family and friends," the petition reads.
"During these 2 years, infertility treatments have been threatened to stop and many peoples cycles have been cancelled. This is a devastating blow to the many people out there experiencing infertility and turning to treatment as a last (or only) resort in order to have a family.
"Experiencing infertility is considered as stressful as a cancer diagnosis, loss of a family member or going through a divorce. It increases anxiety and depression, childless women are at higher risk of suicide and 13% of women going through IVF experience suicidal ideation.
"This recent decision is likely to create a mental health crisis among the infertile, who are already dealing with copious amount of synthetic hormones running through their systems and the incredible financial strain placed on them by requiring treatment.
"For those of us who have experienced infertility and pregnancy loss, every day we live without a baby in our arms is hard. And now the added stress of not knowing when treatments will be reinstated.
"IVF is NOT a choice. Politicians should NOT be allowed to decide on the timing of anyone's reproduction."
Monash IVF Group (MVF) has also warned the non-urgent surgery protocols will disrupt some procedures in Melbourne and other major centres.
Patients who plan to commence a stimulated cycle after January 6, 2022, will need to undertake a clinical assessment first to determine urgency, the group said. Stimulated cycles whereby patients have commenced their drug regime prior to January 6, 2022 will continue.
Frozen embryo transfer, intra-uterine insemination and medical preservation procedures are also continuing during the health order period.
The company is unsure whether the suspension will impact IVF services for the full three-month period, and expects it to create pent-up treatment demand that could last for months following resumption of services.
The industry as a whole is "currently seeking that the Victorian Department of Health & Human Services reconsider the current restrictions, given the time critical nature of fertility treatment and the strong Covid safe practices in place across IVF clinics", Munnings said.
"In the meantime, we are offering our patients additional support with access to our counselling team and telehealth video appointments with their fertility specialists.
"We want to reassure patients that our fertility specialists, as well as our teams of fertility nurses, embryologists, counsellors and support staff, will be ready to treat them as soon as the current restrictions have been lifted."