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While the South-West Regional Health Authority (SWRHA) maintains there is no reduction in the allocation of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff, some employees are troubled following an internal memo that suggests they will no longer get surgical masks. Unified Health Sector Workers’ Union general secretary Rhea St John said if the SWRHA does not want workers to withhold their service they must provide them with PPE.”Anyone who comes to me and say they are expected to interact with patients wearing a cloth mask, I will ask them to read the health and safety guidelines where you have the right to remove yourself from a potentially harmful situation,” St John said. An internal memorandum from Krystal Richardson, acting manager of the Emergency Department (ED) at the San Fernando General Hospital, said the department would reserve PPE for staff in high-risk areas. These include Triage, Resuscitation and Viral pathway, as well as Point-of-Care Testing (POCT) as aerosolisation can occur with the processing of blood samples.”This means that areas such as Level 3, Asthma, Trauma, CDU, Filter, Medical Records and staff within the ED will not be issued surgical masks. Compounding this directive is the reduced quantity of surgical masks being provided to the ED by Warehousing and Inventory due to their supply,” the memo stated.

Cloth Mask: A gesture of goodwill

On April 20, the hospital administration provided 391 cloth masks for staff at the ED. While fabric masks are not recommended PPE for medical workers, the SWRHA said its sewing department worked beyond regular hours to make over 3500 cloth face masks for employees to use outside work.”The goodwill gesture, which appears to have been misunderstood by a few of our employees, was meant as a demonstration of SWRHA’s commitment to ensuring the safety of our dedicated staff and the capacity of our will to meet the work-life balance needs in challenging situations,” the SWRHA said in a media release. SWRHA said that all frontline healthcare employees are provided with adequate and proper PPE and its stock is prepared and reviewed daily. It further stated that there was an adequate PPE stock to distribute to various staff categories, based on risk exposure and following the World Health Organisation (WHO) protocols.

Healthcare workers: Everyone is a suspected case

Echoing the words of Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram, St John said healthcare workers must consider that anyone can have COVID-19. On March 30, Parasram advised citizens to treat everyone they come into contact with as if they were COVID-19 positive. While St John understands that the cloth masks are for outside work, she questioned what was in place for staff in those areas mentioned in the memo that were denied surgical masks.”Workers in the Medical Records Department do not interact with patients directly but anyone doing so needs to have surgical masks. Even before COVID-19, we used surgical masks, not cloth masks. You cannot give a patient an injection or get their information from a distance. “You have to take into consideration that you do not know who has COVID-19 until they are tested. As we have seen people lied about their travel history and symptoms, so we have to treat everyone as a possible case.” St John added that while patients with asthma are listed by the hospital, simply putting them into the asthma room and treating their condition does not mean they do not have the virus and cannot infect others.

A medical employee, who did not want to be identified, claimed that on three occasions, patients were admitted to the wards and later tested positive for COVID-19. These wards were not isolated and the nurses did not have the recommended PPE. The employee said there was a scare recently when a baby was brought to the hospital, critically ill, and the parents lied about their travel history.

Deyalsingh: We are managing PPE carefully

At yesterday’s COVID-19 news conference, Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh maintained that there was no shortage of PPE in the country. Deyalsingh said, however, that the rationing of PPE was part of a policy that government implement three weeks ago. He said the Ministry of Health is “managing PPE carefully and strategically”. He said the Ministry allocated 4000 masks to the SWRHA yesterday.