8 Sep 2021

Mystery Middlemore Hospital Covid-19 case: 'We knew it was inevitable'

8:28 pm on 8 September 2021

As health authorities scramble to investigate a mystery Covid-19 infection at Middlemore Hospital - and work out how to cover staff shortages - the management of the case has been slated as a failure and a mess by unions and opposition parties.


A man was admitted on Saturday who unknowingly had the virus, prompting the closure of four wards with 29 staff stood down.

Today health authorities haven't been able to say how the patient and eight of his family members caught the virus, if any of them were vaccinated and exactly how many other surgeries and patients are affected.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Checkpoint his understanding "is that there is a link" and work was underway to find this.

Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has reassured there are no locations of interest, and he said Auckland health authorities had assessed it as a low risk event for the community.

"They're having ongoing conversations with individual members of that family in part just to still see if they can get to the bottom of how the first person in that household was infected and find their link to the wider outbreak."

Inside Middlemore Hospital, chief medical officer Dr Pete Watson admitted there were no rooms available on the ward to put the man into isolation as soon as he was suspected to have the virus.

The case struck at a time when many staff were already off work because they'd been at a location of interest.

Nurses Organisation kaiwhakahaere Keri Nuku said it had exposed a failing, under-resourced health system, caught out unprepared for Covid-19.

"This is the frustrating part of this. We knew it was inevitable but we were certainly not prepared. And prepared meant having adequately resourced, functioning wards where there are plenty of staff.," she said.

While Counties Manukau District Health Board is reviewing the incident, Dr Bloomfield says he doesn't think there's been any negligence, and Health minister Andrew Little says the hospital is well placed to deal with the virus.

Dr Pete Watson defended the hospital's front door screening process saying there was no way to know the man, who presented with abdominal pain, had Covid-19.

He said abdominal pain would now be checked in the Covid questionnaire.

National Party leader Judith Collins called the situation a "mess".

She said the number one item which should be available for hospitals is rapid antigen testing for Covid-19.

"That's only 15 minutes to find out if the test shows up Covid. Then they could have actually taken more appropriate action," she said.

Green Party leader James Shaw also believed the situation could have been avoided.

"As long as you understaff and underpay those staff you do have, you're going to run the risk of a high error rate," he said.

Act leader David Seymour said the delay before the man was taken to isolation appeared to be in part due to a change in staff shifts.

"There were also major problems with PPE not being worn by staff going in and out and around that ward. So those are significant problems," he said.

Executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists Sarah Dalton says rostering staff into separate 'pods', and cutting down patient numbers, has minimised the impact of the case.

But she can also think of a few ways that Middlemore Hospital could have been better prepared.

"The antiquated state of hospital facilities, the need to rely on shared rooms with only curtains between, the lack of negative pressure rooms, really is exposing our hospitals as very vulnerable, should admissions for Covid - or with unknown Covid - increase," she said.

It remains unclear how many staff the Counties Manukau District Health Board is trying to bring in to cover those who are stood down, and how many patients are being deferred.

Staff are already being brought in from around the country to cover shortages in Auckland.

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