Coronavirus: SA healthcare staff concerned over 'intermittent' supply of masks

Health workers across the country are concerned about an impending shortage of masks in hospitals and laboratories as the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases continue to rise.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 709 confirmed cases in the country. 

The government has moved to procure more masks but there is no shortage, for now. But supplies are intermittent, News24 understands, as global demand and international travel restrictions start to bite.

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There are fears the situation will worsen.

National Education Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu) national spokesperson Khaya Xaba told News24 some hospitals were well-stocked, while supplies were not as consistent at others.

In some cases, he said, masks, gloves and hand sanitiser were only given to healthcare workers working in isolation wards, potentially exposing the rest of the hospital staff to infection.

Xaba added the union had engaged with the Department of Health which said it was doing everything it could to rectify the problem.

An employee at a private laboratory, who spoke to News24 anonymously, said the supply of masks and other essentials was intermittent.

So far, there have been dips in mask supplies, she said, adding the private laboratory had recently made arrangements with a supplier of masks to stabilise the supply. But suppliers have increased the price of masks, she said, squeezing private laboratories' resources.

She added there was collaboration across laboratories - public and private - to share resources so that no one runs out.

'We are doing everything we can'

In the public sector, a virologist, who spoke anonymously, said no additional resources have been supplied to the laboratories despite promises from the government to the public that Covid-19 testing would be increased.

This included supplies such as masks, gloves, as well as testing kits and related resources. This has added further pressure on laboratories, both public and private, which were operating under immense resource constraints to keep up with the demand for testing.

"We are doing everything we can but at this very moment, we are still rationalising who we test," the virologist said.

Supplies on the way 

But help, it appears, is on the way. The National Treasury has moved to purchase masks and other essential supplies on an emergency basis.

To facilitate emergency procurements, the Treasury issued an instruction note last Thursday, telling accounting officers how the procurement of hundreds of thousands of masks, gloves, face shields, protective suits and a range of other medical equipment should be undertaken.

A look at the suppliers shows the goods procured, which are manufactured locally, are high-quality latex gloves and large amounts of disinfectant chemicals and hand sanitiser.

It is not immediately clear from the Treasury documentation when the supplies will arrive.

While supply to South Africa has been hampered by supplier countries implementing export bans, the cancellation of flights from affected countries has compounded the situation.

However, News24 understands talks are ongoing with international suppliers and governments to find ways around this problem.

Asked whether the national Department of Health was aware of the mask shortage issue, and what it was doing to solve the problem, department spokesperson Lwazi Manzi said: "This is a global issue."

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