The Health and Safety Authority (HSA) must be given the power to investigate the high Covid-19 infection rate among healthcare staff, the Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 heard today.
The committee heard from trade unions representing healthcare workers about high exposure rates to Covid-19, which has led to more than 8,300 healthcare staff contracting the virus to date.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) said a third of infected healthcare staff are nurses and midwives.
Frontline nurse Siobhan Murphy, one of 2,711 nurses infected by Covid-19, spoke of the severe side effects following infection, which left her with fatigue and out of work for the past 12 weeks.
"I became an in-patient in the hospital where I work, where just a week previous, I would have been standing as a nurse at the bedside, providing care.— Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation (@INMO_IRL) July 21, 2020
"To me, the workplace was a hazard."
Staff nurse and INMO member Siobhan testifies before the Oireachtas COVID committee. pic.twitter.com/YAWwO8tRei
Twelve nurses out of 19 on her ward were infected by the virus. The 27-year-old, who pointed out she had no underlying conditions, does not expect to return to work until October or November.
“Six weeks after we became a Covid ward I became a statistic where I tested positive for Covid-19,” Ms Murphy said, adding she was initially upset and angry as she had followed procedures.
“The emotions I initially felt were buried by the physical impact of Covid-19,” she told the committee.
Staff, she said, were overexposed and burnt out and required greater support for post-traumatic stress than the phoneline and app currently being offered.
“The psychological impact of Covid-19 has been detrimental to myself and my colleagues,” Ms Murphy said. “Being given a phone number or an app to access from home for psychological trauma for PTSD just is not sufficient. We need significant debriefing going forward.”
INMO general secretary Phil Ni Sheaghdha said the HSA must investigate the high infection rate among healthcare staff.
“We believe it’s time for the Health and Safety Authority to be involved. We believe that an examination of the high infection rate among healthcare workers must be examined by the statutory agency that is tasked with that particular responsibility,” she said.
“It is unfair and it is disrespectful to healthcare workers when they haven't been given the statutory authority to investigate the cause and the reasons why. We have to do better,” she added.
Eamon Donnelly, head of health and welfare at Forsa, said it came as no surprise that vulnerable healthcare staff with underlying conditions were infected because of the “severe stance” taken by the HSE to require certification from a consultant. “The policy on vulnerable workers as far as we’re concerned did not go far enough and has resulted in the high number of infections,” he said.
The IMNO, Forsa, and SIPTU all called for increased capacity and staffing levels to enable Covid and non-Covid health services to operate and manage a potential second Covid-19 wave.
“In one word what do we need to meet the capacity - more. More staff, more equipment, more space, more everything otherwise it’s not going to work,” SIPTU honorary vice president Michele Monahan, who works as a radiographer in Connolly Hospital in Dublin, said.
The INMO said 5,000 nurses and midwives are needed and a “funded workforce plan” was critical.
Eamon Donnelly, said a planned response rather than the 'command and control' approach adopted in the initial stages of the emergency was required.
“We don't have a workforce plan, we haven't seen sight of it," he said, adding services were facing a backlog in appointments and procedures.
SIPTU deputy secretary general John King said workforce plans had not been shared.
“In relation to the funded workforce plan the HSE has been consistently behind dealing with that issue,” he said. “The issue in relation to staffing, to having the people and equipment to meet the challenge that is going to come, is something that is of deep concern.”