18 Nov 2021

Vaccine mandate: 'Incredible pressure' on remaining hospital staff

6:40 pm on 18 November 2021

Health sector staff will be under further pressure as the strained system deals with the loss of 1300 workers across the country who are not vaccinated, say health experts.

Kerri Nuku, kaiwhakahaere for the Nurses Organisation

New Zealand Nurses Organisation spokesperson (NZNO) Kerri Nuku Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The vaccine mandate for health workers kicked in at midnight on Monday and DHBs are now figuring out how to do more with depleted staffing stocks.

Royal NZ College of General Practictioners medical director Dr Brian Betty says he respects the choice to not take the vaccine - but that decision would increase the strain on others.

"I think I was surprised by the absolute number. In some DHBs it's up to around 4 percent of the hospital health workforce, which is a high number, and especially in a system that's quite constrained."

He hoped unvaccinated health workers would re-consider their stance when the AstraZeneca vaccine becomes available later this month.

No one can now work in healthcare unless they have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine or are exempt from the government mandate.

At some DHBs, including Northland, the West Coast and Nelson Marlborough, 4 percent percent of their workforce has been stood down.

The largest number of workers stood down was 154 in Waikato - or two percent of its staff - ahead of the Bay of Plenty, with 123 people and 119 in Counties Manukau.

Nearly 500 of those off the job are nurses.

New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) Kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku said there was already 3500 vacancies for nurses and the situation had reached crisis point.

"We're at a really critical point now that we don't have enough supply to meet the increasing demands that is required once we start to get more and more patients, not just occupying ICU beds, but the general wards, which will take less urgent cases, but will still have incredible pressure on the hospital staff and nurses."

She said burnt-out nurses had been stepping up to meet overwhelming demand for almost two years now, and despite their best efforts, the quality of care would suffer.

"While we talk about how many beds there might be in ICU, we don't ever focus on how many nurses does it require to man the bed to be skilled nurses and be able to provide the compassionate care that's required," she said.

For Dunstan Hospital doctor and rural health associate professor Garry Nixon, chronic rural staff shortages are hard enough as it is.

"If you lose a large chunk of your workforce, even for relatively short periods, while some are in isolation because members of that workforce had passed on the virus to other other members of the workforce, that's going to have potentially even bigger impact on small rural health teams."

Health Minister Andrew Little said the mandate kept patients safe.

"I don't think the fact that some choose not to get vaccinated for whatever reason, clearly not clinical, and putting others at risk as a reason to lower those safety standards," he said today.

"It does put more pressure on the system. We'll continue to work with the nurses organisation and others on the recruitment campaign.

He said the 300 MIQ rooms set aside for health workers will help lighten the load.

But Dr Betty said the issues went much deeper than roster shortfalls, as people look to health workers for leadership.

"I am disappointed that this number of health workers would take this opinion about the vaccine and I suppose buy into some of the pseudoscience that is out there about the vaccine, because these are leaders in the community in terms of the Covid response.

"I think it is problematic that this number have decided to do this."

Dr Betty said the vaccine mandate wasn't just to protect the public from Covid-19 - it kept frontline healthcare staff safe too.

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