26 Mar 2020

Coronavirus: Hundreds of thousands of masks to be released to district health boards

9:18 pm on 26 March 2020

The Director-General of Health says 600,000 masks will be released to district health boards from the pandemic stock after calls from the healthcare sector for more supplies.

This photo taken on February 18, 2020 shows a worker sorting face masks being produced to satisfy increased demand during coronavirus outbreak, at a factory in Nanjing, in China's Jiangsu province.

Photo: AFP

In a media conference this afternoon, Dr Ashley Bloomfield said it was crucial that health workers and some of those in essential services were able to access Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

"We are releasing 600 [thousand] masks later today to district health boards from our pandemic stock, we know that we have good production of masks on shore at a rate of more than 200,000 to be produced each day, so we are making sure there is a steady flow of that equipment, both masks and other PPE to our district health boards."

It was already available for a range of health workers and other work was being done to ensure there was enough supply for other essential workers, like those in the supermarkets, for the lockdown period, Dr Bloomfield said.

He reiterated that there was good supply of PPE and the Ministry was working hard today to ensure that it was getting to everyone who needed it, in whatever clinical situation.

"We're making sure that the distribution is rock solid so we're bringing that into a national process and overseeing that from a national level.

"I should emphasise that it's also important that we use the PPE appropriately, so that doesn't mean everybody working in a hospital needs to at all times be wearing a mask or be in PPE. The important thing is that we're using PPE to reduce risk to our health workforce."

There was also advice given to health professionals on when it was necessary to wear them, he said.

On Sunday, the New Zealand Medical Association called on the government to provide more support to healthcare workers. Nine to Noon was also told of community nurses who were told there was only PPE available to nurses who did home visits to confirmed Covid-19 patients.

Nurses Organisation Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku told Nine to Noon that there were concerns for the frontline staff who lack PPE, which was essentially a barrier to prevent transmission or surpress risk to healthcare workers.

It includes gloves, gowns, medical and surgical masks, eye protection, head gear, and hand sanitiser.

"The concern for us is there doesn't appear to be enough equipment and also the management and disposal of that is incredibly important so that nurses don't then take ... the virus back to their families."

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Nuku said it appeared to be a systemic problem with different regions missing out on some gear that others had.

"Different regions are reporting either hand sanitiser not being readily available, the distribution of masks as a basic protection is not available or the control of it is being managed, right down to gowns or clothing that's being made available to nurses, and this is really critical."

She said it was not consistent with messages given to nurses about PPE looks like so that they would reassured and comfortable in doing their job.

"What we're hearing from our nurses, because of the inconsistency of the information available, it would seem some of those DHBs and private providers are negligent around their obligation."

Prior to the announcement, Nuku spoke of her support of the Medical Council's call to release more PPE supplies.

"We know that there are supplies available and that we have been vigilant in ensuring we aren't flittering away the use of how protect and use the equipment, but if we are going to deal with this we need to release much more into the sector than what we currently have."

She said she understood this was an unprecedented situation and uncertainty remained of what would happen after the lockdown period or what that future looked liked.

"It is being precautious that we have this warehouse [of PPE] that we distribute at certain blocks at certain times. The problem is that our nurses are saying, and other health professionals, 'we need that now to get on top of this fully'.

"We need a lot more equipment out there now to deal with it and then it would be up to the ministry to ensure that and negotiate with the contractors about maintaining those supplies in the warehouses. But it certainly doesn't feel at the moment that the flow is going out to the frontline people where the protective clothing is required right now."

The Nurses Organisation had been relaying their concerns for frontline staff to DHBs, she said, and they assumed those messages were going through.

Frontline healthcare workers were doing the best they could, she said, but they were limited in being able to protect themselves.

"If they don't have the right protective clothing and we've seen cases and heard cases internationally where nurses have gone home and reinfected families, where there have been vulnerable members at home."

And it was more than just the workplace, some nurses were afraid they would unknowingly transmit the virus to their families that they voluntarily self-isolate after work, Nuku said.

But she said she was not aware of any provisions in place for nurses to cope with that.

"Nurses have been pretty resilient and have thought ahead and thought 'if I can't get back to my family, can I go and share a room with another nurse? And how do I self-isolation and have I got enough resources to get me through?'"

She acknowledged that the Ministry of Health and DHBs put out information on sanitation guidelines, like washing clothes after work. But there appeared to be a gap between information and practise, she said.

"With the business of the workplace already ... I'm not sure how all that has been communicated to all of the nursing and health workforce," Nuku said.

"What we're hearing from members is questions about 'how do we launder, how do we protect ourselves when we go home to our family?'"

Nurses were being reminded to be very conscious of their actions and surfaces they touch, even after work, she said.

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