Five health care workers at Durban's King Edward VIII hospital have tested positive to the coronavirus, with two deaths in the past week in the Eastern Cape and unions claim 150 positive tests at Cape Town's Tygerberg hospital, so far.
“There was nowhere in the oath where we said we were pledging to die at the end of the day. And there is nowhere in the oath where we said if it’s hot, I am going to put my hand up without having any protective equipment. You cannot send us to war with no protective equipment,” says Fikile Dikolomela-Lengene, a nurse and the deputy of the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union.
According to a Mail & Guardian report, Dikolomela-Lengene was referring to an oath nurses take when they enter the profession when speaking about being equipped with information and personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with COVID-19 patients as the country prepares to go to level 3 of the lockdown.
The report says level 3 will see many industries, schools and churches reopening and this is likely to ramp up the number of COVID-19 cases. But Dikolomela-Lengene said the union doubts the readiness of the health sector, questioning whether nurses had been sufficiently trained. “It does not help not to give them PPE if you do not show them guidance on how to wear it and take it off. We cannot take it that every nurse worker knows. Remember, this pandemic is not in any book. How we deal with it is coming from a point of figuring out as we go. Nurses are not equipped. They are not ready.”
Besides equipment, Dikolomela-Lengene said there is a reluctance to test nurses in the public sector. The report says the union is pushing for every nurse to know their status because they could spread the virus to people in their care.
Gauteng Health said: “We have adequate PPE in the province and continue to procure,” adding that it had confidence in the health workers. “Training and learning in the field of medicine is always ongoing.” On testing the department said it had conducted a baseline testing of all health workers in April and that it was not aware of complaints about nurses not being testing.
As the Eastern Cape recorded the death of a second health worker from COVID-19 in less than seven days, healthcare workers in the province are lamenting a critical shortage of PPE and the slow pace of contact tracing once frontline workers test positive.
A Mail & Guardian report says as of 26 May, the number of active cases in both public and private hospitals stood at 170, with the Nelson Mandela Bay and Buffalo City metros showing a significant increase.
Eastern Cape Health says the complaints about personal protective equipment are from “nurses who did not want to work”. But, the report says, an internal report sent to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases noted with concern the rising number of healthcare workers getting infected in the province.
One source said the shortage of PPE was linked to supply chain departments around the country reading an instruction note on disaster management procurement from Treasury saying they could only purchase more expensive N95 respirator masks, yet there were cheaper masks of the same specification level available. But, the report says, this was clarified by Treasury, which said “government institutions may buy any mask respirators that complies with the national department of health and World Health Organisation specifications”.
Competition Commission spokesperson Sipho Ngwema confirmed there was a complaint, from the Eastern Cape, regarding the wording of the instruction note.
Western Cape Health authorities admit the outbreak in the province is now beginning to affect health workers – a pattern that has been seen around the world.
Public-sector workers unions say about 150 staff members at Tygerberg have tested positive for the coronavirus to date. Of the six healthcare workers in the Western Cape who have died from Covid-19, two were working at Tygerberg hospital.
“All over the world, the human resource system becomes affected and overloaded. We have to prioritise healthcare workers. Almost half of the staff in the province who have been affected have already recovered,” Western Cape health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo is quoted in a Mail & Guardian report as saying.
Testing workers suspected of being COVID-positive is a priority, says Mbombo, but this is taking place at the expense of other people, who now have to wait longer.
The psychological effect of the outbreak has also been recognised. The department wants to prevent fatigue and a drop in morale.
Western Cape Health head Keith Cloete says in the report that the department is regularly meeting with labour unions to brief them on the plan to fight the virus. “The anxiety is not about policy. The anxiety is people feeling tired and anxious. We (are) backing that up with support (for nurses) and we may need to bring in more psychosocial and psychological support,” Cloete says.
Five health care workers at Durban's King Edward VIII Hospital have tested positive for COVID-19, reports The Times. KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu, said that the department was notified that the workers had tested positive and would not be entertaining calls for the closure of the hospital.
“Hospital management is conducting the risk assessment, which will consider, among other factors: where the infection took place; when it happened; who was infected; and who their contacts were. Our intervention will be based on findings from that investigation.”
National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) provincial secretary Ayanda Zulu said unions met hospital managers and were informed that the five workers had tested positive. Zulu said they were notified that further staff who may have come into contact with those who tested positive would also be tested.
A fourth Tygerberg Hospital staff member has died of COVID-19, said a health workers union, which is appealing to the Western Cape Health Department for help. According to a Cape Argus report, Emilia Moloi, provincial secretary for the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), said a porter died after contracting COVID-19 two weeks ago.
The union was informed of the death late last week. “He was on duty two weeks ago and he fell sick at work. He tested positive for COVID-19. He was admitted to the Mitchells Plain Hospital and did not return to work,” said Moloi. “Some days staff don’t have personal protective equipment. We have nightmares. We don’t know when we come to work whether we will contract the virus and take it back home to our families,” she said.
“We are taking a risk with our lives every day. When you hear someone has died, you ask yourself who the next person will be.
“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety because you don’t know what will happen next.”
Health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo said it was “understandable that staff would have anxiety”.
Full Mail & Guardian report
Full Mail & Guardian report
Full Mail & Guardian report
Full report in The Times
Full Cape Argus report