Health workers' nightmare in bid to tame virus

Monday March 30 2020
WORPIC

Health workers disinfect and screen visitors at Mbagathi Hospital, Nairobi, to reduce coronavirus spread, on March 18, 2020. PHOTO | LUIS TATO | AFP

By ANGELA OKETCH

If you’re finding it hard to stay at home to shield yourself from coronavirus, imagine how it would feel to be a doctor or nurse who does not have that luxury.

The health workers have to expose themselves to the risk by taking care of unnoticed coronavirus patients, while some are staying away from their families to avoid transmitting the virus to them.

They are not only suffering from anxiety of having to take care of the sick without personal protective equipment, but also forgoing the companionship of their families.

Ms Rebecca Awino's fear and worries have been about bringing the virus home since she is more exposed, yet she only has a mask to protect herself.

Tracking coronavirus

At the outpatient department in one of the leading public hospitals in the country, she is the first contact person.

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She records weights and ensures the details of patients are keyed into the system before they get access to doctors.

“I’ve two children. Having to attend to patients without protective gear, I’m always thinking of my children. But there is nothing I can do. I took an oath as a nurse to save lives. It’s a calling,” she said.

THOUSANDS INFECTED

Her concern is mirrored by dozens of healthcare workers globally, who are the first points of contact, but have to attend to patients without protective gear.

Some patients are asymptomatic, which means they have the virus but don’t have the symptoms.

While interacting with frontline healthcare workers before a diagnosis is made, the patient can infect them, and hence the need to take the necessary precautions to avoid cross infections.

A March 21 editorial in The Lancet clearly illustrates the danger, noting that 3,300 healthcare workers were infected with the Covid-19 virus in China by early March.

At least 22 died by the end of February. The virus has also affected healthcare workers in the United States.

The Kenyan health workers join a growing chorus of their American counterparts, who say they’re battling the virus with far too little armour as shortages force them to reuse personal protective equipment.

At least 14 health workers in a city hospital are currently under quarantine after coming into contact with a Covid-19 patient, who did not disclose his travel history while being triaged.

FULL DISCLOSURE

The team of three doctors and 11 nurses working at the city hospital were forced to go into quarantine after attending to a 66-year-old patient.

“We do confirm that a number of our healthcare workers were exposed to a Covid-19 case by virtue of non-disclosure by the patient on their travel history. The types of exposure were classified into whether there were high risk or low risk exposure,” said a hospital official.

Upon assessment, the official said the majority of the staff were categorised as ‘low risk exposure type’ and necessary precautions were immediately taken.

He noted that the hospital has developed different levels of measures to protect its clinical staff.

Patients seeking health services have repeatedly been advised not to leave out any essential information while giving details of their symptoms.

Disclosure about recent travel history is particularly essential for patients with flu-like symptoms.

Meanwhile, Kenya National Union of Nurses (Knun) Secretary-General Seth Panyako said healthcare workers attending to patients in any facility should be quarantined.

He added: “If hospitals have the equipment, then we would be talking about different scenarios here.”

SCREENING

Knun Deputy Secretary-General Maurice Opetu said all patients going to any hospital should be treated as coronavirus suspected cases.

He added that there should be a screening desk at the entrance of every hospital. “We are equally risking because we are attending to anybody who comes to the hospital and yet we are not protected. It’s high time we adopted the necessary measures to prevent further infections on healthcare workers,” Mr Opetu said.

He said if such measures are not adhered to, then the government should be ready to quarantine more health workers as witnessed in other countries.

Mr Panyako said Section 13 of the 2007 Occupation Health and Safety Act requires an employer to provide equipment and maintain a clean working environment for employees.

LAXITY

If this is not done, he said, Section 14 gives the employee the right to abscond duty when they know that their life is at risk.

“If this virus starts hitting us hard, understaffed hospitals are going to witness an overwhelming number of patients, extremely long hours for medical staff and shortage of protective gear, leaving our nurses underprotected, overworked, and increasingly vulnerable,” he warned.

“I’ve advised my people that they should only attend to patients when they are protected. If the government does not provide the equipment required, I don’t see why our nurses should put their lives at risk.”

Similarly, several doctors have taken to social media to express their worry at the perceived laxity of the Ministry of Health in taking charge of the situation and coordinating response between counties and the national government.