A frontline nurse at an Irish hospital is criticising the lack of personal protective equipment available to medical staff at present, and says the situation is “tearing the heart out of us”.
Mary (not her real name) is employed at a regional hospital in the Midlands.
She told the Irish Examiner that the shortage of protective equipment has led to nurses wearing the same paper masks for a full 13-hour shift, and even to some physical altercations between medical staff fighting over access to scarce equipment.
She says the equipment that is available is “essentially food PPE, too low a grade for the medical purpose we’re using it for”.
“We are supposed to be treating everyone that comes in the door as a potential [positive case], but with such little equipment, we’re having to ration it for confirmed cases, or at the behest of those who come in and think they may have it.
"Those at the acute end, in ICU, have to have PPE, so those of us on the frontline and meeting these people first, have nothing.
“This is absolutely breaking my heart. We were led to believe if we came in contact with a confirmed case, we’d be stood down for 14 days, or until we got swabbed. That isn’t happening.
"We are swabbing patients and then continuing to nurse them, and we are not being stood down because we simply don’t have enough staff.”
She further claimed staff were discouraged from sharing the dire circumstances at present with the public in order to avoid panic.
“When you see the likes of doctors begging on Twitter for PPE, then you know you’re in trouble.
"And what is available is being diverted to the acute hospitals in Dublin, it’s not trickling down.”
The HSE said it is “currently seeking to redistribute stocks to sites with particular shortages and is encouraging staff to use these resources appropriately at this stage of the crisis”.
The HSE has acknowledged that PPE is running dangerously low in Irish hospitals, but said that the first batch of a giant €28m procurement order will be arriving via air from China at the weekend.
Mary said, however, that stretched resources have led to a system that is at breaking point: “People are being forced into work in a very passive-aggressive, subliminal way … they may only have a scratchy throat, and that might be ok if you’re working on a computer — it is not fine when you’re going to nurse an 80-year-old woman.
"And they may be in for a broken hip, but it’s the Covid that will kill them.
"And if we are transferring it to people that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed, then we’re complicit in something that goes far, far deeper than the pandemic.”
She said she has “never seen anything like” Covid-19 in terms of the disease’s aggression: “It’s horrendous, absolutely awful.
"I have nursed MRSA patients, C-Diff patients — they are nothing compared to this, it goes from zero to 90 and, before you know it, a patient has fluid in their lungs and needs to be respirated.
"And those patients are creating aerosols (from persistent coughing), which we’re told are the biggest danger, and we don’t have the protection.”
She said that every worker in a hospital at present “should be wearing a mask, from the moment they get to the car park”.
“It might be scary, but what they’ll see in the hospital itself is far scarier.”
Mary said that “we are absolutely overloaded with suspected cases”.
“Whatever about the confirmed numbers, what about the 30 people who are sitting coughing in our emergency department?
"People coming in with broken ankles, but they’re displaying Covid symptoms as well.”
There have been reports over the past few days suggesting that, at certain rural testing centres, very low percentages of appointments are currently being attended, with the inference that due to the testing backlog, people’s symptoms are abating and they are not attending as a result.
Mary disagrees: “It’s not because they’re feeling better, they are walking into A&E, which we were told would be avoided.
"They’re doing what they’re told, staying at home for three or four days, they’re getting worse and they’re coming in in quite severe respiratory distress.
"That’s who I’m meeting at the front door, someone who’s been at home for seven or eight days, waiting for a test.”
She said that in her experience, the disease knows no age boundaries, having dealt with as many patients in their 40s as in their 80s.
As for the problem of short staffing — a fact the HSE has tried to remedy with its Covid-19 recruitment drive in recent days — Mary said the combination of a lack of protective wear and low staff numbers is seeing the situation spiral out of control.
“We had a recruitment embargo for years,” she said.
“Now, if one person gets Covid, you’re losing 16 staff for 14 days.
"There are not enough people going around, and that’s not including the pressure that nursing homes are under. And we’re already feeling it.”
She added that, in her opinion, the measures and restrictions taken by the Government to date “are not working”.
“If scaring people is what it takes then that’s what it takes, because this thing is not working.
"We can give it the two weeks to see if the lockdown is effective, but at the moment this is just tearing the heart out of us.”