28 Mar 2020

Nurses need better provisions during Covid-19 coronavirus crisis, union says

7:35 pm on 28 March 2020

The country's nurses are calling for a wellbeing package that includes keeping their families safer from Covid-19.

Kerri Nuku, kaiwhakahaere for the Nurses Organisation

Nurses Organisation director Kerri Nuku. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The Nurses Organisation union wants the government to commit by Monday to a comprehensive package for all healthcare workers during the Covid-19 crisis. The senior doctors' organisation is backing them.

Nurses Organisation director Kerri Nuku said the package would include access to protective masks, gowns and visors, support if workers must go into isolation, higher overtime pay, meals, hot washes of uniforms at work, childcare at work, and more counselling.

"Nurses have said to me, 'If I don't have the PPE [personal protective equipment] I'm not going to work'.

"A lot have come back crying, saying, 'I should have [not worked] but I did and now were worried about exposing their families'," Nuku said.

Nurses currently take their scrubs home and hot wash them. Some were self-isolating at home in the garage or caravan, Nuku said.

Some doctors now got paid higher locum rates for overtime due to Covid-19, but nurses were not eligible for extra pay, she said.

It was not just nurses who were anxious and felt undervalued - the care package must cover community care workers checking people in their homes, and poorly paid orderlies and hospital cleaners in public and private agencies, Nuku said.

The unions and district health boards agreed late last night on new national guidelines for using personal protective gear.

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists in New Zealand said senior doctors were concerned these guidelines did not ensure workers would wear masks when treating asymptomatic patients.

Nuku said using protective equipment depended on supplies being available.

'Chronic global shortage of personal protective gear'

The World Health Organisation said the "chronic global shortage of personal protective gear is now one of most urgent threats to our collective ability to save lives".

A radiographer told RNZ her private practice had no proper protective gear to deal with Covid-19.

Staff in close contact with patients had standard masks but no proper protective gowns - so were using ones meant for patients - and she had brought in her gardening goggles from home to use, she said.

"I feel for the stenographers in a room within one metre of a patient," said the radiographer.

It was not clear how practices could get supplies from the DHB, she said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she wanted better distribution of masks.

"We have the stock ... we've got to get it out to the front line," she told Newshub's Nation programme today.

Yesterday, Ardern said four million masks would be released to the health sector and another four million would go to non-health sector essential workers in coming weeks.

The country had 18 million masks in reserve for a pandemic and health boards held another five million, Ardern said.

Health Minister David Clark said yesterday a Whanganui company was making at least 80,000 masks a day, both surgical and N95.

Nuku said fully-filtering N95 masks should be used by nurses, as these were most effective.

However, N95 masks are much more expensive than regular surgical masks.

The Health Ministry said 10 million of the 23 million surgical masks it had in reserve were the high-quality N95 respirator type. These are more effective at filtering out Covid-19 than the cheaper, blue surgical masks.

The ministry said 60,000 of the masks produced locally each day were N95s and it aimed to release 4 million masks to healthcare workers soon, saying the proportion of N95 masks in that would depend on clinical need.

The supply of gowns is also under huge pressure, according to a major supplier.

But yesterday, the Ministry of Health said it had 1.9 million gowns and aprons - though more aprons than full-protection gowns.

Hamilton lawyer Chong Feng, who liaises with two mask-making factories in China, told RNZ more sophisticated masks were in short supply there, though there was a ready supply of basic masks.

"Because of the outbreak in the US and Europe, a lot of people go to suppliers and factories, especially for N95, they make the whole supply in the market still under huge pressure," Feng said.

The Nurses Organisation said training to use protective equipment properly was patchy, especially for home care workers.

Nuku said protective equipment should not be locked away and demand must drive supply.

Although the ministry said 60,000 visors were in stock, Nuku said some nurses had been told eye protection was on "backorder".

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists' executive director Sarah Dalton said the guidelines on personal protective equipment (PPE) use had been set at a ministry and clinical level.

"Our members are really concerned perhaps it's a little bit lighter than it should be around what PPE you use when you're treating asymptomatic patients, people who are needing treatment but are not at the hospital for Covid-related reasons.

"What our members are telling us is they would like those beefed up a bit," Dalton said.

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