24 Aug 2021

Nurses living with close contacts asked to turn up for work: union

5:35 pm on 24 August 2021

The Nurses Organisation says nurses who live with close contacts are being asked to turn up for work at Auckland's DHBs.

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Photo: spotmatikphoto/123RF

The union says it is deeply concerned by a Ministry of Health exemption issued last week for essential health workers meaning they don't need to fully self-isolate, as long as certain conditions are met.

The NZNO also says in a survey of some of its members, 60 percent reported still experiencing issues getting either enough PPE or the right fitting masks.

The Nurses Organisation kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku told Nine to Noon it felt like the DHBs were cutting corners.

Nuku said the government last week made changes to Section 70 of the Health Act 1956 with the purpose of preventing the outbreak and spread of Covid-19.

"What it says in an ordinary situation is that if you've been a close contact then you should go home, self-isolate and ensure that you've had a Covid test.

"This direction applies to general members of the public but where there is a difference is whether it applies to essential health workers."

The amendments to the Act mean a nurse who is considered a close contact can return to work if they have been fully vaccinated, the close contact of any household members has returned a negative test and no household members have symptoms of Covid-19.

However, Nuku said nurses in Auckland were being called back into work before these requirements were met and she felt like the DHBs were cutting corners.

She said the exemptions were in response to chronic staff shortages and the boards being unprepared for the latest outbreak.

One of the union's main concerns with these new exemptions for essential healthcare workers is that the implementation of these rules could vary across DHBs.

"What we want is to have a discussion around the table and clarify as it stands at the moment, what we've seen is that there's different interpretations across different DHBs.

"We need to be sending a single message and that needs to clearly come from the Ministry of Health, so we want to be at the table having those discussions ensuring that our members are safe when they go to work, they're clear around what they're entitled to do and (what they) should not be doing," Nuku said.

Nuku feared that if an infected nurse brings Covid-19 into a hospital the public blame would be placed on healthcare workers.

She said the government needed to pay greater attention to offer them more protection.

"There's been immense frustration we spoke about it last year and we've spoken about in previous years.

"Every Ministry of Health will always tell you that nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system but that's not reflected in the policies or actions that they choose to take."

Nurses are also concerned at the state of the management of PPE with a union survey showing 62 percent of nurses have not received enough PPE or proper fit-testing for their N-95 masks.

"It astounds us really, we said during the first outbreak our nurses were saying 'we've got no access to PPE, we're doing our own gear to make sure that we're safe.

"Many of our members, many of our staff were at the end of a conversation where nurses were absolutely distressed because they couldn't get adequate PPE gear to keep themselves protect and keep their families protected," Nuku said.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said in a statement that, in making the update to Section 70, "consideration has been given to balance the risk of non-Covid-19 patients coming to harm as a result of low-risk essential health workers isolation isolating unnecessarily."

The statement said all DHBs actively fit test nurses for masks, with priority given to ED and ICU nurses, then to the broader DHB hospital community and DHB nurses employed in the community."In primary care, fit test masks are being arranged for nurses, though the Ministry is aware that progress is variable," the statemennt said.

All employers should have "strong lines of access to PPE through their normal ordering and supply arrangements" and should contact their DHB if their supply arrangements are insufficient.

Meanwhile, Brian Betty Medical Director of the College of GPs said the PPE supply systems were working better than they were this time last year in the primary healthcare sector.

"Certainly two or three weeks ago there were some issues around supply of PPE and distribution issues but recently I've heard of no problems in general practice, generally the systems are up and running now and we've had assurances from the Ministry that there is adequate PPE in the country.

"I haven't heard any reports recently of issues so it seems to be working compared to last year when we had a lot of problems," he said.

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