31 Mar 2020

Covid-19: Mother of child with disability wants PPE for care workers

8:52 am on 31 March 2020

A Northland mother with a severely disabled son says confirmation that two disability support workers have caught Covid-19 confirms her worst fears.

Close-up Of Disabled Man Sitting On Wheelchair

Photo: 123RF

She and thousands like her have been asking the government for weeks for personal protection equipment (PPE), but still don't have it.

One support worker in Auckland, and one in Wellington, with Spectrum Care charitable trust, have tested positive for the virus.

The two did not show symptoms, and were tested only because of contact tracing from an infected person.

The trust said all the people its two workers came into contact with since becoming infected, including at least two disabled clients, had been traced, tested and cleared.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

The two workers and all its other staff, followed Health Ministry guidelines and its own protocols on when to wear PPE, which was only if they are going to be within a metre of a client, a trust spokesperson said.

"Our PPE guidelines in relation to Covid-19 remain unchanged," they said.

The ministry advises community carers not to wear masks or goggles, gloves or aprons or gowns, in most situations.

At the weekend, the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists said senior doctors who work at District Health Boards (DHBs) had said they did not like the guideline about not wearing a mask when a patient was not showing symptoms, and wanted that "beefed up a bit".

The mother in Warkworth, who like 5000 other New Zealand families employs a carer, heard about the Spectrum cases through someone she knows, not via any official alert.

"So we're all waiting to see, oh, OK, is this going to be an alert for our people with individualised funding or not? But so far, nobody has said anything," said the woman, who RNZ agreed not to name.

While speaking to RNZ, the woman's son was with his carer in the next room, the carer wasn't wearing personal protective equipment.

"I'm supposed to provide it for him. I'm the employer who's trapped in this scenario.

"My son and him are being exposed to each other constantly all the time.

"This is very close bodily contact, body fluids, this is just hospital stuff. And it seems bizarre that we don't have any protective gear whatsoever.

"We don't want to have to suddenly have an escalating situation because we didn't have it in the first place. There's just no excuses."

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Her requests for PPE had been bounced between the DHB, the Ministry of Health and other agencies, to the point she has given up and now bought $500 worth of masks via a New Zealand broker in Shanghai, Brendon Ritchie.

"I think it's appalling. But this is what happens when the tables turn and when systems don't function... but honestly, people in the disability sector are very used to this, we are used to having to just pull out our own resources," she said.

Brendon Ritchie told RNZ he had contacts with Chinese PPE manufacturers and delivered half a dozen orders of about 100 masks to New Zealand. During the early days of the virus lockdown in China he had to rely on his brother to send him masks from Australia.

He had also acted as a broker for an order from the Serbian government for one million masks, Ritchie said, adding these were all surgical masks, not the full-filter N95 masks which are more tightly controlled and much pricier.

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.

A face mask manufacturer in China. Photo: AFP

'We're waiting for answers' - Carers NZ

The Spectrum infections have alarmed Carers New Zealand, the group that supports families of disabled people.

"People have been asking and asking," director Laurie Hilsgen said.

"It's not good that there have been infections of vulnerable people, given how many providers... have been asking about this. So we're waiting for answers with everyone - how can we access PPE.

"We care about it because family carers are the last line of defence."

Carers NZ, non-government organisations that supply carers to families and others, had been asking the Health Ministry about PPE supplies for several weeks, she said.

"We could all see it coming.

"We know what's happened overseas with the escalation of the numbers of people getting the infection, and how vulnerable the frontline workers are.

"Could we have gotten in front of this sooner? I mean, we all knew that it was a priority."

The families that employ carers fall outside the umbrella of the Disability Support Network, that covers 90 providers of support care, including Spectrum.

Nevertheless, network spokesperson Garth Bennie feels the families' distress.

"People are really anxious and frustrated about the delays," Bennie said.

"And and until recently, there was quite a bit of confusion about the actual circumstances in which you do need the personal protective equipment.

"It's not all circumstances, it's specific circumstances."

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At 7pm on Monday night, the Ministry of Health told him protective equipment supplies were poised to come through to the families and to the many providers he represents who don't have any PPE either, he said.

"People need to be confident that there's an effective supply chain in operation here.

"That when the circumstances dictate that you need it, it's a quick phone call and, bang, it's there... and without that confidence people have been very, very worried.

"It's been frustrating, but I think we're on the cusp of a solution for sure."

More than half his 90 providers did not have any PPE, but did not need it prior to Covid-19, due to what had been low-risk care situations. However, they need now for the pandemic, he said.

Spectrum Trust is not in that boat, but like with other providers who also have PPE, has clients who either need close personal care or who do not understand the two-metre distancing rule.

The trust said it had plenty of PPE if it were used according to the guidelines, but that it would run out if those guidelines were not followed.

"Facemasks and gloves are also not recommended if staff can ensure more than one-metre distance from people with potential Covid-19 symptoms and any surfaces or items they may touch," it said.

Regional public health officials gave it feedback while contact tracing the two workers, and indicated that the protocols, processes and training currently in place are of a high standard.

In relation to those waiting for PPE the Trust said: "We've been informed that measures to address immediate needs for PPE equipment are currently underway".

The woman in Warkworth said she will believe it when she sees it.

"This has been going round and round in circles for the last two weeks.

"Nobody is providing any PPE gear, and we are being told to try and source it ourselves."

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