Protest over Covid-19 working conditions

Denosa chairwoman, Eleanor Roberts, speaks to protesting False Bay Hospital staff.

False Bay Hospital nurses protested last Friday, saying the hospital lacks suitable protective gear, has too few nurses and not enough Covid-19 decontamination.

Fifteen hospital staff, which includes nurses and clerks, have caught Covid-19, according to the provincial Department of Health.

The personal protective equipment (PPE) the nurses claim they use falls short of the gear the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends for health-care workers on the Covid-19 front line.

The WHO says staff giving direct care to Covid-19 patients should wear surgical masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection, such as goggles or face shields.

Carrying placards saying “Give full PPE”, “We demand permanent posts”, “How to fight Covid-19 without PPE?” and “Proper decontamination of Covid-19”, the 25-odd demonstrators walked to Kommetjie Road.

Chairwomanofthe Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (DENOSA) Eleanor Roberts, spoke to them as they chanted “Give us full PPE” and “Amandla”.

A nurse, who did not want to be named as she feared losing her job, said their surgical masks, gloves and plastic aprons weren’t enough to protect them.

“Our colleagues have been infected, and this proves that the PPE we are using is not protecting us from the virus,” she said.

Danver Roman, Denosa’s provincial secretary, said staff shortages at the hospital were a long-standing problem, and about three quarters of nurses were non-permanent. Those agency nurses were now needed at other facilities because of Covid-19, leaving False Bay with a quarter of its nurses, and some of them were having to self-isolate after catching the virus, so only about 15% of the hospital’s nurses carried the load.

The issue had been raised with management, and staff had suggested moving Covid-19 patients needing hospitalisation elsewhere, he said.

However, hospital management disputes Denosa’s nursing-vacancy figures.

Mr Roman said Denosa had asked the hospital in March for a risk-management plan but had still not seen one. Nurses felt their PPE was insufficient, he said, as they had no protective clothing other than plastic aprons. They had no shoe mitts or visors and had been advised to use surgical masks and gloves only, while those with latex sensitivity who couldn’t wear gloves had been told to wash their hands regularly.

“Nurses feel they are risking their lives and those of their families when they go home,” Mr Roman said.

The hospital had also refused to close off wards for decontamination, and general assistants sanitised
wards even though they did not know how to do it properly, Mr Roman said.

Western Cape Department of Health spokeswoman, Natalie Watlington, said the hospital had a
7% vacancy rate for all staff categories and it was busy filling
those positions. However, she added, the hospital used agency nurses because its workload had doubled, and there were difficulties filling permanent nursing posts.

According to the hospital’s manager for medical services, Dr Wendy Waddington, only eight of the hospital’s 80 nursing positions are
vacant, but three will be filled from July 1 and another three from August 1 so only two positions are open – this sharply contradicts Denosa’s claim that the hospital’s nursing complement is near 15%.

Ms Watlington said the hospital had full infection control and sufficient PPE stock, and Covid-19 patients were in a separate unit. And management, helped by the False Bay Hospital Trust, ensured recommended PPE for each risk area was available at all times. Availability was strictly monitored due to the global shortage of PPE, she said.

Decontamination was done by the book and when appropriate, she said, adding that all areas were cleaned often to maintain hygiene.

“We understand that this is stressful for our nurses who are also working extra overtime and courageously caring for patients despite the risk to themselves and their families,” she said.

False Bay Hospital Trust’s Charles Maisel said there was no PPE shortage at the hospital. The trust had bought 10 000 surgical masks for R108 500 and could buy more if needed, he said.

Staff had also been given two new sets of scrubs, costing R122 790, so they could wash their scrubs every day and not have to use their own clothes.

The trust realised there were different levels of PPE, but the gear it had supplied was more than sufficient based on government protocols, he said.

The trust, he said, had spent
R60 000 on hand sanitiser and was exploring decontamination equipment and protocols, but the trust could not afford the top-of-the-range machines that cost $155 000 (about R2.7 million) and were only used in private hospitals.

Current decontamination protocols were more than sufficient, he said.