13 Jan 2021

Confronted in supermarkets, flatmates move out: MIQ staff face 'huge' stigma

8:27 am on 13 January 2021

Managers at managed isolation facilities say their workers are encountering unfair stigma in the community, and the pressure has been so bad that some have quit because of it.

Nurse, Kerry Winchester, sorting supplies for the nurses she oversees, who work at Christchurch Managed Isolation hotels.

Nurse Kerry Winchester has had more than one staff member quit over the barriers they face once people know where they work. Photo: Supplied.

Christchurch charge nurse Kerry Winchester said she has been shocked by the way some people have treated her staff when they realised where they work.

Her nurses had been confronted in supermarkets, barred from going to their children's school meetings or onto school grounds to pick children up, and some have had difficulty getting routine doctor or dentist appointments.

She has had more than one staff member who found the barriers set against them so difficult they've resigned because of it.

"Lots of staff are feeling isolated, the stigma is huge, it can be quite hard, and the perception is we are a risk to the public - which is simply not true.

"We have not seen community transmission of Covid from managed isolation workers in the time that we have been running managed isolation facilities, so I think we can be fairly confident in our processes there.

"Just treat anyone that you know working in these facilities with kindness. Every single agency working for managed isolation has the same goal in mind, and that is to prevent Covid from reaching the community."

Staff working at the Waipuna Hotel in Auckland have had friends and family reluctant to meet, and business contacts had repeatedly cancelled appointments where hotel staff had already travelled to another city to meet, after they realised what the hotel was being used for.

Staff at the Waipuna Hotel, Mt Wellington, Auckland. Several asked for their full names to be protected: (from left) nurses John and Vicki; workforce coordinator Tash, managed isolation facility manager Lieutenant Sam Wilson, site security manager Stuart. and hotel manager Shakira.

Staff at the Waipuna Hotel, Mt Wellington, Auckland. Several asked for their full names to be protected: (from left) nurses John and Vicki; workforce coordinator Tash, managed isolation facility manager Lieutenant Sam Wilson, site security manager Stuart and hotel manager Shakira. Photo: Supplied.

Navy Lieutenant Sam Wilson, who is managing the managed isolation operation at the Waipuna Hotel, said his own flatmates had moved out when they learned what he would be doing. And while they were still on good terms, he was frustrated at hearing the hurt and difficulty his workers were experiencing in their everyday lives.

He said workers needed the community's support, and believed most of the negative reactions they encountered was caused by knee-jerk fears, which in most cases could be set to rest when people learned more about what went on inside the facilities.

"Yes, there is a big stigma, but there's so many procedures in place, and guidance and training there. As long as everyone's following the guidelines, keeping their distance, it is very easy to stay safe in there.

"Everyone's keeping their distance, everyone's wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment. If there's even any single breach then that gets noted down, reported, and it's not a disciplinary thing most of the time, unless it was intentional and then of course there would be disciplinary action involved.

"Accidents do happen, and we have the precautions in place to set people aside, isolate them, and make sure either we get a check-up, a test, and the right decision made by someone who's actually qualified in a [clinical] role, meaning one of the nurses and the doctors.

"I've put myself in the isolation before, because I ended up having contact with someone, but it was quite quickly cleared again, and it was all good again. I'd reassure people we've got a close eye on this kind of thing, and this is one of the very high priorities, because there's no way or chance we want to let anyone out that's got Covid."

At the Waipuna Hotel managed isolation facility lieutenant Sam Wilson and Wellbeing Coordinator, Charlie, monitor returnees arriving, and take any extra requests they have.

Lieutenant Sam Wilson, left, and wellbeing coordinator, Charlie, monitor returnees arriving at the Waipuna Hotel managed isolation facility. Photo: Supplied.

Both Wilson and Winchester said most staff weren't in direct contact with returnees, most returnees didn't have Covid, and they were both convinced the strict safety protocols in place were thorough, and being followed strictly.

"The guests have their allocated rooms; you may have individuals, or you may have family units," Winchester said. "We obviously have to have contact with people when we're doing their swabs and health checks, but that contact is kept to an absolute minimum."

"And the amount of Covid that's actually coming through the facilities is actually very low when you think about the amount of people that we've had through managed isolation. So absolutely there's always that risk, but it's absolutely managed extremely well."

Auckland managed isolation facility, Waipuna Hotel in Mt Wellington.

Waipuna Hotel, Auckland. Photo: Google Maps

Meals and other supplies were delivered to returnees' doors, who then opened the door once the staff member had gone, cleaners wiped down the surfaces in all thoroughfares every few hours, and all staff used hand sanitiser regularly.

Winchester said those few staff who did enter returnees' rooms - mostly nurses - followed strict safety protocols. They stayed on the other side of the room for most of the brief meeting, wore full protective gear that was discarded immediately afterward and, like all staff at the facilities, were screened and tested regularly.

She said the fear was especially frustrating as her nurses were professionals who were trained and experienced in managing patients with communicable diseases long before Covid came along, and like every isolation and quarantine worker, they were there because they believed in the importance of the work to keep New Zealand safe.

'These people are our national heroes'

The minister for the country's Covid-19 response, Chris Hipkins, told Morning Report he was concerned.

"I'd be very concerned if people who work in managed isolation or who work at the border were feeling negative effects of that within the community.

"These people are our national heroes, they are bending over backwards to keep New Zealand safe, they are working incredibly hard to keep themselves and their families safe.

"None of them wants to be responsible for bringing Covid-19 into the community, and I think we should treat them with respect and we should recognise the incredibly valuable job that they are doing."

He said when the vaccine arrived, the government would ensure border workers were "first in the queue" for it.

"We are not expecting to get the vaccine into New Zealand until towards the end of the first quarter."

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