'We're not designed for Covid-19': Staff at EC psychiatric hospital living in fear

  • Nurses at some Eastern Cape hospitals claim they have not been given enough protective gear to counter Covid-19.
  • The health department has accused some of its on- and off-duty workers of not following precautions when on breaks.
  • By 11 June, 258 provincial healthcare workers tested positive for the virus, according to union Denosa.

Staff members at a psychiatric hospital in the Eastern Cape have spoken of their fear amid Covid-19 cases at the institution as well as a rise in cases in the province.

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The province's capacity to manage rapidly rising cases has been in the spotlight this week, with dire situations at Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth and Wilhelm Stahl Provincial Hospital in Middelburg making headlines in Sunday news reports.

READ | 'It is dirty, nauseating': Doctors work under terrible circumstances

Provincial health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo admitted this week cases were going to rise at hospitals, saying fear and anxiety were causing panic among staff.

This week, a nurse, who has been working at the Tower Psychiatric Hospital in Fort Beaufort for more than 10 years, told News24 that staff were "scared".

Speaking on behalf of a concerned group, the nurse alleged nine staff members had tested positive.

The nurse said a group of clerks did not report for duty on Monday after news of a confirmed case at the hospital's administration block reached workers on Sunday.

"We were trained to look after patients with mental illnesses. There are just more than 400 workers and 320 patients, but there is only one thermometer gun in the entire institution and sometimes it malfunctions and records incorrect temperatures.

"Everyone is scared, it all started in April when a patient died, then four died in May and six in June alone."

The staff member added meetings between management and unions had fallen through.

"There is a shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment] and another problem is that Tower hospital is not conducive for Covid-19 cases. It was not designed for Covid-19."

Responding to the Tower hospital deaths, Kupelo said: "That is hearsay, people will die but it doesn't mean the cause is Covid-19. Not all those deaths are Covid-19-related."

He did not provide the exact number of cases and deaths at the hospital, and did not elaborate on the other claims when asked.

'More than 200 healthcare workers infected'

The Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA's (Denosa) provincial secretary, Khaya Sodidi, said, as of 11 June, 258 healthcare personnel in the province have been infected, adding the number had since risen.

"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 high infection rate among nurses and doctors and it's proportional to the rapidly rising infection rate of the province.

"The reason of closures is to allow the staff to isolate and quarantine and allow the areas to be decontaminated and disinfected."

Sodidi claimed some staff at some hospitals, who had been in contact with a positive case, would still have to work pending the return of their own test results.

The rising infections drove nurses to shut Middleburg's Wilhelm Stahl Provincial Hospital and Cradock Provincial Hospital last week.

Kupelo confirmed Cradock Provincial Hospital was temporarily closed by workers last week after it recorded a high number of infections.

On Monday, he said things were back to normal after the matter was attended to by district health officials.

Cradock, Bhisho hospitals

At Cradock Hospital, nurses, who wanted to remain anonymous, told News24 the high infection rate was caused by a critical shortage of PPE.

Kupelo dismissed this, however, and accused some nurses of not following Covid-19 health regulations.

"For instance, we have been cautioning our nurses against the habit of sitting together in groups during their lunch hour when they would eat lunch and break bread together. You should see them. They put the masks on the chins and talk and eat."

He said not all nurses were getting the virus at hospitals, adding some were infected in their communities.

"For instance, a matron from Bhisho Hospital who passed away last month, an investigation had revealed that she was in contact with a [positive] family member from Cape Town.

"Another nurse had tested positive after attending a funeral in Durban. There is also a Port Elizabeth nurse who tested positive and failed to isolate. We heard that she was organising community meetings."

On Wednesday, Bhisho Hospital's casualty, maternity and women's units had to be closed after eight workers tested positive.

It was the second closure after it was forced to close and discharge or transfer 55 patients on 20 May after a senior nurse died and three others tested positive, News24 reported.

Kupelo said this should not be alarming.

"The numbers are going to continue rising, it is not extraordinary. I must place it on record, in future we will not be commenting every time a hospital closes because that is expected to allow for deep cleaning."

Livingstone Hospital

City Press reported on Sunday that at Livingstone Hospital, floors were covered in human waste, bags full of medical waste were left in corridors, beds were without sheets and naked patients covered in sheets were being wheeled into theatres.

Kupelo blamed this on a demand for overtime pay at the hospital, saying the health department's deputy director-general, Dr Nomalanga Makwedini, would be visiting the hospital to resolve the "misunderstanding" among nurses.

"The real issue there at Livingstone is that nurses are demanding overtime pay when the department had approved the appointment of 100 general assistants and 59 professional nurses for the Covid-19 period."

He said when the department had hired a private company to clean the hospital, it was allegedly intimidated by health workers at Livingstone.

Kupelo added some union members at the hospital were facing allegations of theft.

"There is a problem at Livingstone which we are trying to deal with. It is a hospital that had the entire management put on suspension following allegations levelled against them by some health workers."

The hospital has been without a permanent CEO or a management committee after they were suspended by the department's superintendent-general, Dr Thobile Mbengashe, in November 2018.

Wilhelm Stahl Provincial Hospital

Kupelo confirmed reports Wilhelm Stahl Provincial Hospital in Middelburg was closed this week after 30 staff members contracted the virus.

When Rapport visited it on Thursday, it was told the hospital was closed.

"At Middelburg, there were a number of people who tested positive, so the doctor decided to test all the staff members and a number of them tested positive and some of them were put in quarantine. One of them was a doctor.

"A matron and some nurses breached isolation and toyi-toyied outside the hospital demanding the entire closure of the hospital, but that has since been stopped and normal operations have resumed."

Kupelo said nurses at the province's hospitals needed to understand the department could not close entire hospitals when only specific sections had outbreaks.

He urged the media to "work" with the government in its coverage of the pandemic and called for behavioural changes among some nurses, saying the virus would exploit the opportunity.

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