WATCH | Covid-19: 'We didn't know who was going to be next' - EC hospital worker's fear

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  • Wilhelm Stahl Hospital nursing staff are back at work after 30 were infected with Covid-19.
  • A hospital staffer details how she was scared to come back to work.
  • DA councillor in the area said the biggest problem in the hospital was infrastructural backlog.

A staffer at the Wilhelm Stahl Hospital in the Eastern Cape has detailed the fear of watching other colleagues fall ill with Covid-19.

The hospital was forced to close down earlier this month for three days after 30 staff members were infected. 

Nurses and cleaning staff at the hospital, nestled in the small rural town of Middelburg, downed tools after the 30 were infected.

With only 29 beds, one ventilator and three beds in the two dedicated isolation centres, the already depleted nursing staff went against the district department's wishes by closing shop.

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When News24 visited on Thursday, the hospital had reopened, and some semblance of normality had returned, but it was not too long ago that the virus spread quickly among colleagues.

One worker felt they were lucky not to contract the virus.

"It was tough, sisi (my sister). It just started with one nurse earlier this month and then people started getting sick. So many people were scared and we didn't know who was going to be next," a cleaner at the hospital, who did not want to be named, told News24. 

'We had to stop'

She said the situation escalated, with no word from management on a response.

"Every day when you arrive for work, you would hear that this one and this one is sick. The hospital was getting empty. There was no option, we had to stop working."

DA councillor Handri Vorster told News24 that, when nursing staff started self-isolating, with only four nurses left, the nursing staff called the department to request that the hospital be closed.

"They did not have enough human resources. The district told them to stay open because, if the hospital is closed, people have nowhere to go. It was a very big government issue. In the end, staff closed the hospital out of fear. The next day, the hospital was fumigated."

Nearby, at Kwanonzame New Clinic, a nurse told News24 they closed their gates for over weeks after seven nurses were infected. The nurse, though, said the department had provided them with enough PPEs.

"I was infected, I stayed home and now I've recovered. We are lucky." 

'It's not just any flu'

News24 requested an interview with hospital manager Dan Ntuli, who directed all enquiries to provincial health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo.

Efforts to reach Kupelo have been unsuccessful.

In an earlier interview with News24, Kupelo said nurses at the province's hospitals needed to understand the department could not close entire hospitals when only specific sections had outbreaks.

The anonymous hospital cleaner said it was difficult to come back after the hospital reopened, "but after receiving assurances from the department and the hospital's management, I decided to join my colleagues and return to work.

The anonymous hospital cleaner said: 

I'm grateful to God that I wasn't infected. Many people don't understand the seriousness of this virus but when you work in a hospital and see nurses scared for their lives, you realise that it's not just any flu.

Vorster said the hospital does not have a 100% staff complement, but nurses were gradually coming back from isolation.

When News24 visited the hospital, the situation seemed relatively calm. At the entrance were boom gates, where security personnel sanitised each visitor. However, there was no screening for temperature readings.

Inside, nurses were dressed in standard uniforms, covered in protective gear. A few were dressed in Hazmat suits.

'Still bad at the moment'

Middelburg has 145 active cases, Vorster said.

"It's still bad at the moment. Staff are slowly [coming] back to work, but there are still issues at the hospital, mostly infrastructural problems. These problems were here before lockdown. A lot of our issues are [from] before lockdown and this Covid-19 has made things worse."

Earlier this week, the dean of the Department of Health Sciences at the Nelson Mandela University, Professor Lungile Pepeta, warned that the shortage of nurses and doctors has ensured a tsunami wave is on its way.

The Eastern Cape has less than 70 ICU beds, the professor said.

He told News24 that, in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro alone, there will likely be a doubling from the 4 706 cases recorded on Saturday to over 9 000 within the next 10 days.

The Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA's (Denosa) provincial secretary, Khaya Sodidi, earlier told News24 that at least 258 healthcare personnel had been infected from 11 June, with the number expected to rise exponentially.

"I am sure today the number is way above that. We can first confirm that the issue of PPE is not that big of a problem, but there is a high infection rate among nurses and doctors, and it's proportional to the rapidly rising infection rate of the province."

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