26 Mar 2020

Covid-19: Nurses asked not to wear masks feel unsafe at work

6:33 pm on 26 March 2020

Nurses around the country say they don't feel safe at work and claim in some cases they're not allowed to wear a mask or access proper personal protective equipment.

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Photo: 123rf

Some say their gear is not even as adequate as a supermarket worker's - who can wear gloves and a mask - and fear they could be spreading Covid-19. They're calling for clearer guidance to protect themselves, their patients and their family.

A nurse working at one of the community-based clinics for Counties Manukau District Health Board, who didn't want to be named, said her colleagues were sent to work at the airport with minimal protective gear - namely masks, gloves and hand sanitisers.

She said she felt unsafe, so she didn't choose to go. However, while working in the community, she said she was told off when wearing a mask.

"We need to go to the school to do the school clinic. When I wore a mask, the school's reception staff said 'hey nurse, can you not wear the mask? If you wear a mask, it will make people panic'."

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She said her nurse educator at work has also asked her not to wear one.

"I feel like not safe and also I feel like we're the nurse, we have to protect ourselves. Otherwise, how can we provide nursing care for the public?"

A nurse working at another Auckland hospital, who also didn't want to be named, said she was told not to wear a mask as well, even though she brought her own.

"I think that's my right to wear a mask or not and also I'm not costing anything on the DHB. I just bring my own mask. I should have the right to wear my mask."

She said her hospital was not recording the details of patients' partners or supporters who came to the hospital with them, which makes it hard to trace Covid-19 contacts.

It's also impossible to apply social-distancing at work, she said.

"We have a very small common area - the common area, like the office - sometimes we don't even get space to sit down, so it's impossible to have two metres between each other."

A district nurse in Christchurch, who visits people in their homes to offer support, said their equipment is scant.

"The only PPE we've got at the moment is the hand sanitisers, the gloves and the normal apron."

She said her work doesn't support wearing masks even when she has to travel around to meet people. Still, she's brought her own mask and she would like more clarification and support from the Ministry of Health and the DHB.

"If we can have proper PPE, even like China and Italy, the white-coloured fully covered protective gown that would be great, but if we can't have that one, even the masks [would help]," she said.

The Nurses Organisation was calling for nurses in hospitals and primary care to be given personal protective equipment.

The organisation said there's inconsistency around the DHBs in terms of who gets the various types of PPE, which includes gloves, gowns, masks, eye protection, head gear and hand sanitiser.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement that the use of PPE was required when there was somebody who has clear symptoms, in the treatment of that person and diagnosis.

"Hospital staff do not routinely need to wear masks, particularly if there is no risk of them coming into contact with someone who may have a Covid-19 infection," it said.

"We are currently making a list prioritising (from high to low) who should have access to PPE based on risk of exposure to Covid-19. This priority list includes health settings both in primary and secondary care.

"This prioritisation will be finalised by the Infection Prevention and Control subgroup of the Covid-19 Technical Advisory Group. Once the advice is finalised we will advise the health sector and make it available on our website. Resource information will be available to staff to make messages clearer on what PPE is needed and for what."

It said the prioritisation list will enable DHBs to ration out their PPE and also allow them to estimate how much they need.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says there's a good supply of PPE and they're working to make it available to whoever needs it.

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

A petition calling for masks for hospital staff has collected close to 7000 signatures so far.

In a media conference this afternoon, Dr 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 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.

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