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Eastern Cape hospitals in crisis as staff down tools

The health crisis has been brought into focus by the death of five health workers in the province.
The health crisis has been brought into focus by the death of five health workers in the province.
Image: 123RF/Jarun Ontakrai

The Eastern Cape health system is reeling as health workers fearing for their own safety refuse to treat Covid-19 patients, putting added pressure on state and private hospitals scrambling to meet requirements ahead of an expected spike in coronavirus cases.

On Friday, Frere Hospital in East London was ordered to immediately shut down over concerns that measures for stopping Covid-19 — including access control — were inadequate, and the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa) believes this situation is only the “tip of the iceberg”. 

The health crisis has been brought into focus by the death of five health workers in the province, including the wife of Amathole district municipality mayor Khanyile Maneli, a nurse at Victoria Hospital in Alice, which has created a culture of fear among their colleagues, many of whom have tested positive for the virus themselves.

Many workers are refusing to work, asserting “our health comes first”. The reality is that there may not be enough doctors and nurses to treat Covid-19 patients unless the situation improves.

According to Denosa provincial secretary Khaya Sodidi, most health workers testing positive for the virus worked at private health facilities.

 “We always focus on the public sector but more than 70% of nurses who are infected are in the private sector. As the cases increase, so are the numbers of infected healthcare personnel. The private sector is the biggest culprit as they fail to protect their front-line workers,” Sodidi said.

Aside from Frere, there are number of other hospitals in the province causing health management teams sleepless nights. These include:

  • Dr Malizo Mpehle hospital in Tsolo, where employees workers downed tools for hours on Monday after two workers tested positive for Covid-1;
  • Mthatha General Hospital, where nine patients are being treated for the virus. Health workers have also tested positive, and their colleagues have refused to return to work;
  • Victoria Hospital in Alice, where over the weekend employees refused to work  and allegedly turned away patients;
  • Life hospitals in East London. Some workers were told to come to work despite testing positive for the virus, according to sources.

An employee working for  Life hospitals in East London, which include Beacon Bay, East London Private, St Dominic's and St Marks Clinic,  said she was worried after 14 of their colleagues  tested positive.

“The staff have tested positive. The problem now is that those who made contact with them are  working. The worry is for the patients and their families,” said one employee.

At Dr Malizo Mpehle Hospital, a worker told DispatchLIVE they were now refusing to treat anyone.

“We are not attending to anyone until our matters are addressed. Who wants to jump into the fire knowing they will die? We cannot be forced to work while two of our members have just tested positive,” the nurse said.

Mthatha resident Xoliswa  Toyi said  she arrived at  Mthatha General's casualty unit on Monday needing a drip, but the doors were closed for more than three hours because the nurses were having a meeting.

A Mthatha General nurse told DispatchLIVE  it was “unfair” that they had to work when their colleagues had tested positive.

At Nelson  Mandela Academic Hospital, staff told the DispatchLIVE they were afraid to work.

“We might not have too many cases here but we interact with our colleagues at Mthatha General. This is scary,” one worker said.

On Saturday, Victoria Hospital in Alice had to close after staff laid down tools.

“Our colleague died here and you expect us to keep mum about this,” one hospital worker said.

Eastern Cape health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the provincial health department has had to halt operations at Ngangelizwe Clinic in Mthatha, Mthatha Gateway Clinic and Bhaziya Clinic. “And now there is talk of positive cases at Mthatha General Hospital.

“But we cannot close down a hospital, that will not be sustainable. What we will do is look at where the person who tested positive is stationed and then we will consider deep cleaning that section only, without closing the entire hospital,” said Kupelo.

He said workers downing tools was putting a lot pressure on the health system.

“Based on what we have seen, a number of private institutions are having to close to allow decontamination and deep cleaning after positive cases. We are following the same route as the department,” he said.

''We feel and understand the workers' anxiety and fear, and we are with them. We will provide all the staff with necessary PPE [personal protective equipment]. But in fact this was always there.”

Kupelo insisted that PPE was available to ensure the safety of health workers.

He said the department had tested more than 30,000 and screened more than a million people in the province.

“The officials who have been doing that work have not been infected and they are using the same PPE,” he added.

Last week a matron died at Bhisho Hospital, sparking further fear among medical personnel.

Kupelo said the matron  had not been exposed to Covid-19 at the hospital.

“We traced her (matron's) contacts and found out that they were not inside the hospital. I am not trying to justify or suggest that our facilities are safe,” Kupelo said.

DispatchLIVE sent questions to the Life Hospital Group for comment. A spokesperson acknowledged receipt of the queries but said they would not be able to meet the Dispatch's deadline on Monday.

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