Have adequate steps been taken to protect frontline workers during the current pandemic?
From the outset of the pandemic, Ms Phil Ni Sheaghdha, Spokesperson of the INMO has been vocal regarding her concerns about the high numbers of healthcare workers contracting the Covid-19 virus.
She ought to be commended for her hard work in lobbying the Government on behalf of INMO members, to ensure that all healthcare workers who provide care to patients within a 2 metre radius, now wear PPE. This policy was introduced in Ireland on the 22nd April 2020, almost two months after the first case of the virus was confirmed here. In a recent radio interview, she described the delay in introducing such a policy as a mistake. In the week following the introduction of the mandatory policy, there was a drop of 400 reported positive cases of the virus amongst healthcare workers, when compared with the previous week. On that basis, it would seem that there is no doubt that the policy has prevented many healthcare workers from acquiring the virus.
However, the reality is that as a group, healthcare workers remain at risk. As employers, the State have a duty to ensure a safe place of work for employees. There is no doubt that the virus poses a risk that likely cannot be eliminated completely, but the question must be raised as to whether the State are doing all that they reasonably can to minimise the foreseeable risk of injury to healthcare workers, posed by the virus.
Ms Ni Sheaghdha has expressed grave concerns regarding the investigation and reporting of statistics regarding the transmission of the virus amongst healthcare workers and has called on the Government to remedy the issue. The Government have subsequently undertaken that a weekly report on healthcare workers would be made available by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
Investigations to date have established that healthcare workers represent almost one third of all reported positive cases; more than three times the number reported in China and twice those in Italy. 88% of these healthcare workers contracted the virus within a workplace setting. Ms Ni Sheagdhdha has called for a further breakdown of the statistics to identify precisely where the rates of infection are occurring and the level of PPE which was worn by those affected. To date, this information has not yet been forthcoming. It seems imperative that a further breakdown of the statistics be furnished to ensure that any particularly problematic areas are identified and the issues causing high rates of infection are remedied at the earliest possible opportunity. The dearth of available information adds to the problem.
Regardless, there is no doubt that the current situation is unacceptable with the effect, as Ms Ni Sheaghdha, suggests, that going to work, for our frontline workers, is dangerous. Accordingly, she is now calling on the Government to act to protect healthcare workers by amending Regulations to allow the Health and Safety Authority to carry out an independent investigation to identify the causes for such high rates of acquisition of infection amongst healthcare workers and further, to recommend best practice to minimise the risk of infection going forward. She has called for an urgent review amidst fears of a potential future second wave of the virus.
When questioned further on the types of measures likely required to protect workers, Ms Ni Sheaghdha indicated that the policy whereby asymptomatic healthcare workers who have been in contact with a confirmed case, can be asked by management to return to work and not be required to self-isolate for 14 days, needs to be urgently revised. It seems that the policy was introduced in circumstances where there were staff shortages and it certainly seems to pose an unnecessary risk to the safety of staff and patients alike. She is calling for regular testing for all healthcare workers and not just those working within an identified cluster, or a nursing home setting, so as to minimise transmission of the virus. Furthermore, she stressed the necessity to promote the use of PPE. She further indicated that the State need a nationwide policy regarding ensuring that PPE is quality assured to the requisite standard. According to Ms Ni Sheaghdha this task currently rests with each facility, with the likely result that the efficiency of the policy varies nationwide.
While the Department of Health have stated that the protection of healthcare workers is a ‘top priority for concern’, it remains to be seen how they will react to limit the transmission of the virus amongst healthcare workers. The hope is that they will listen to the concerns voiced by Ms Ni Sheaghdha and react urgently to protect those who have acted so fearlessly to care for us when we need them most.
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