31 Mar 2020

Community care workers unhappy with Covid-19 advice

11:58 am on 31 March 2020

Workers looking after people who are disabled are sewing their own face masks to keep themselves safe from Covid-19, and others are considering not going to work at all until they get the right equipment.

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Photo: 123RF

Now the Disability Rights Commissioner, Paula Tesoriero, is urging the government to change its advice that community care workers do not need masks.

Tom Finlayson, who's daughter Kate lives at at Hohepa Services in Titirangi which looks after people with intellectual and physical disabilities, said she can't avoid close contact with those who look after her.

"She has at least one-to-one care but sometimes, in a car for example, it would be two. She would never really be alone."

Finlayson praised staff for maintaining a calm and caring environment amidst the Covid-19 crisis, but says it's tough going.

"Many of Kate's peers would have been in a similar environment for 20-odd years. So they're very much like family, you know, and the fact that they can't give each other a hug, shake hands or sit down and look at the same book... that's the sort of closeness that you would expect in a family."

Workers are struggling to get equipment they feel they need to keep them and their patients safe.

And, as Michelle Ashby from Hohepa Services explained, it's impossible for workers to stay two metres away from the people they are caring for.

"The government has deemed that PPE equipment, especially the masks, is not required by our sector. So we've had to source for our staff ourselves. And today we started sewing them - we're making our own."

Masks are what they most want.

"If you're helping somebody dress themselves, if you're helping someone shower, if you're helping someone toilet themselves or take medication. If we are having to apply any type of restraints because of challenging behaviours, all those sorts of things."

Ivan Sullivan, who looks after a disabled person in their Tauranga home from 9am to 5pm each day, is desperate for masks.

"If we don't get the masks or the sanitiser, I would consider not going to work. We've got plenty of gloves but I haven't seen any sanitiser and only half a box of masks," he said.

"I would like to have masks and sanitiser, otherwise I don't think I can continue coming here."

Tesoriero is also not happy with the government's stance.

"I've written to the ministers and the director general of health about this. I've raised it at the highest levels to challenge it and to make sure that the gear is getting out to carers who go into the homes of disabled people or [to those] who work in residential facilities."

Many disabled people had underlying health problems so were at greater risk from the coronavirus, she said.

"A national emergency really spotlights the existing cracks that we have in the system. Disabled people - before the crisis - were perhaps able to manage in the situation that they were in with the right support.

"But they become at risk when those supports fall through. And those supports are falling through."

She said disabled people were also having to grapple with other problems like a lack of access to food and information as well as a predicted rise in family violence - with disabled women twice as likely to be victims than women who aren't disabled.

A community care worker in Northland, who RNZ agreed not to name, had visited five elderly people in their homes yesterday and gone to the supermarket twice to shop for them.

She felt extremely exposed, with no protective equipment except a mask a client's family made for her, antiseptic wipes she had bought, and two boxes containing 100 pairs of gloves - she had used 30 or 40 pairs already in a few days.

She simply could not refuse to go to work - as the Public Service Association has suggested care workers should do if they do not have gloves, masks and aprons - because a couple of the people she looks after are in their 90s.

"I just can't do that to them."

She had been given six aprons but used three of them in one day with one client. She has none of them left.

She stripped off her clothes outside the house each night, to protect her family.

"I will confess to feeling really spooked. Sort of going along in the car and thinking, hey, I just want to go home."

A carer in a residential home for disabled people in Tauranga, who RNZ agreed not to name, said the home had a little supermarket-bought sanitiser left and did not have any masks.

"We're up close to the people we support constantly," she said, helping them with toileting and eating.

"I was quite close to calling my manager and saying that I wouldn't actually want to come to work again, because we don't have the masks and hand sanitisers and I think, with me, there are quite a few getting quite frustrated."

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