Some nurses dealing with Covid-19 patients at public hospitals in the city are unhappy about being forced to reuse personal protective equipment on a daily basis.
The health workers said this was in addition to working so hard and for so long that they had to go on for four to six hours without eating or using the bathroom.
Azwindini Manigavhada, stationed at the Tshwane District Hospital, said since he started working as a nurse in 2002, never had there been a time when he and his colleagues were so concerned about their well-being.
“We cannot in the middle of a shift go to the bathroom, let alone scratch an ear and any other body part for fear of getting infected with the virus.”
But Manigavhada said what angered him and his colleagues the most was the shortage of personal protective equipment, and being forced to wash and reuse it.
“It’s a depressing time because every day we lose at least three people to this virus, and yet our desperate calls for protective equipment are not being taken seriously.
“My biggest fear is that I am the breadwinner at home and should something happen to me, my entire family would suffer. I haven’t even been able to visit my mother in Limpopo because I fear putting her life in jeopardy.”
At Steve Biko Academic Hospital, another nurse, Unathi Mdzanga, said they were put in the firing line by reusing protective equipment.
Mdzanga said working in the front line of the pandemic was taking a huge toll on their mental and physical well-being.
Being asthmatic, Mdzanga said her whole family was worried about her.
“My family understands and knows my fears. The truth is that we need more staff to be appointed because we’re not just dealing with Covid-19, but other patients too.”
Mdzanga said if there was one thing nurses would ask the public, it was for everyone to start taking Covid-19 more seriously.
She said with persons reacting differently to the virus, if a neighbour survived, this may not be the case for the next person.
A nurse at Weskoppies Psychiatric Hospital said they were surviving day to day by the grace of God.
The nurse said staff were worried as the number of people getting infected was increasing.
In addition, she said staff numbers were also declining due to infections, putting those remaining under added pressure.
She added that they had been instructed to rewash protective equipment, but refused.
“Many nurses are experiencing depression at the moment, and the system is just not dealing with that at all.
“You find instances when even nurses with comorbidities and other challenges are being thrown in at the deep end without any consultation or consideration for their safety.”
Adjunct Professor for the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Pretoria, Dr Veronica Ueckermann, said the need to recycle and reuse protective equipment had been anticipated by those in the sector for some time.
Ueckermann said, however, that it had to be done in a strictly controlled manner by the infection prevention control teams at the various hospitals.
In instances where the equipment was reused, she said plastics were usually placed over the disposal gowns to prevent spillage on the equipment.
When they had to reuse the material, it must be dipped in alcohol and other cleaning materials before being hung out to dry in the sun.
“It’s been working quite well for us, and there have not been any incidents so far,” she said.
“But this, like I said, has to be done in a very controlled manner, and normally not by the nurses themselves.”
According to Ueckermann, nurses would dispose of them as per protocol and the control practitioners would be the ones handling the process.
This had to be done for all healthcare workers.
The president of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa, Simon Hlungwani, said reusing protective equipment was appalling.
Hlungwani said this demonstrated cruelty and was a gross violation of health-care workers’ safety and rights.
“We’re dealing with a highly infectious disease, and if workers are being forced to wash that, it means the moment they touch it they are at further risk of infecting themselves.
“We will be demanding accountability for these actions as this is an occupational hazard that can’t be left unchecked. We have to intervene immediately to save nurses and those they serve.”
Provincial Health Department spokesperson Kwara Kekana confirmed that both Steve Biko and Tshwane District hospitals were preserving protective equipment by washing with biocide forged with hydrogen peroxide.
With N95 masks, this was done by putting them in personalised packets for seven days and then reusing them. They could also be placed in a microwave, Kekana said.
The World Health Organization previously warned of severe and mounting disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment caused by rising demand, panic buying, hoarding and misuse, which was putting lives at risk from the new coronavirus.
Last month, health workers affiliated to the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union threatened to go on a national strike next month, when the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to peak in some parts of the country, over a lack of protective gear.
It said some front-line workers had resorted to wearing refuse bags to protect themselves.
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