Inside the hospital of death: St Augustine’s battles Covid-19 stigma

Netcare St Augustine's Hospital. Picture: Supplied
Netcare St Augustine's Hospital. Picture: Supplied

Despite hospital undergoing deep decontamination, healthcare worker claims crisis is being used for political point scoring and doctors treated like lepers

As government health officials apply pressure on the Netcare St Augustine’s Hospital in Durban, chronically ill patients continue to receive care in some parts of the facility.

Doctors and surgeons have, meanwhile, told City Press that they were being ostracised by other private hospitals in the province.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize told a media briefing in Pietermaritzburg on Friday that KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu had been instructed to initiate investigations on protocols in place at other private hospitals in the province after several complaints were lodged with the department.

The main hospital building at St Augustine’s was closed for deep cleaning last week after 66 people were found to have contracted the Covid-19 coronavirus, 44 of them nurses.

According to Simelane-Zulu, five people have died of the infection at the facility.

There are currently 58 patients at St Augustine’s, a 464-bed hospital, who cannot be transferred.

There are also outpatients who have no option but to continue visiting the hospital’s renal care unit, which is based in a building on the precinct but has its own entrance.

One of those is 74-year-old Umbilo resident Dennis Klingbiel.

The wheelchair-bound Klingbiel makes a trip to the centre on Monday and Thursday mornings for dialysis.

There may be a lot of frustration towards the hospital management for their poor communication to the staff during this crisis, but they have not been negligent.
health worker

Armed with a letter from the clinic noting his need for treatment, and a driver who has permission to drive him there, Klingbiel makes the short journey after his wife Jenny has given him “a squirt of hand sanitiser”, a process she repeats when he returns home.

At the renal unit, his temperature is recorded and his hands are again disinfected before he is allowed inside the building.

“Having him taken there is very nerve-wracking,” Jenny told City Press.

“The staff are doing their best. They are very strict as all the patients there are extremely vulnerable,” she said.

“I can’t go with him due to the [lockdown] restrictions. It is hard. [When I used to accompany him] I used that time to ask questions and get an understanding of his current condition. They used to provide masks, but recently they asked he bring his own.

“There are about 30 people on dialysis at the same time, sitting quite close to each other. And when they are done, more arrive. He must go, as much as I don’t want him to. He knows if he gets the virus it will be fatal. I keep praying [he doesn’t get it],” she said.

Last week, the Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee head Salim Abdool Karim and a team of epidemiology and infectious diseases specialists from the University of KwaZulu-Natal were dispatched to St Augustine’s to investigate the underlying cause and nature of the Covid-19 outbreak.

“There is a section of the hospital that we have allowed to keep open, mainly because there are 58 patients that cannot be moved to another hospital, firstly, because the number is high and, secondly, we want the hospital to create a ‘people under investigation’ unit and screen these patients,” Mkhize said.

He said it was “particularly concerning” that so many health workers were “infected in one place”.

As long as the country’s outbreak remained active, said Mkhize, “we must treat ourselves as the health sector – both public and private – as one team”.

Read: Netcare hospital closes doors amid high infection of patients and staff

“Our coordination and communication must always be open to deal with issues quickly. Everyone must comply with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases protocols. Compliance is expected from all these institutions. It is mandatory for private hospitals to provide support and share information,” Mkhize said.

A health worker based at St Augustine’s, who spoke to City Press on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, said Netcare had been among the most proactive group in implementing protocols with regards to Covid-19. However, no one had experienced this before, said the source.

“The public must remember that a few weeks ago there were not enough test kits in the country and patients still came to the hospital for a variety of reasons. The guidelines for testing were different to what they are now,” said the health worker.

The main hospital building at St Augustine’s was closed for deep cleaning last week after 66 people were found to have contracted the Covid-19 coronavirus, 44 of them nurses

“If patients did not fit the profile, they were treated as normal patients. To blame nurses for not following protocols is misplaced.”

The health worker said that even in the best hospitals, mistakes were bound to happen.

“In 10 days’ time, what happened at St Augustine’s could very likely happen at any number of government hospitals. But government’s persistence in somehow making out as if private hospitals are the weak link is wrong. It is well known that the public health sector is close to collapse, and that is without this current crisis.”

The health worker said most of the hospital had already been decontaminated.

“Recently, the hospital built two new intensive care units. The Covid-19-positive patients are in one of them. In the wards there is strictly one patient to a room. All patients are being seen to by nurses in personal protective equipment and nursing staff are doing a deep clean.

“There are two ultraviolent R-Band robots cleaning the hospital. These machines completely sanitise any area. The hospital has had one of these machines for nearly two years, while another one was brought in recently.

“There may be a lot of frustration towards the hospital management for their poor communication to the staff during this crisis, but they have not been negligent.”

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