Covid-19 positive health workers accused of ‘carelessness’

Mediclinic workers say that when nursing and support staff at one of the company’s Pretoria hospitals test positive for Covid-19, they are accused of catching it in taxis and shopping malls. This is despite allegedly inadequate controls to protect them amid an outbreak at the hospital.

Workers at Mediclinic Kloof, who spoke to the Mail & Guardian on the condition of anonymity, said they are blamed for contracting and spreading Covid-19 and accused of being “careless”. The private hospital company denies this.

Staff who’ve tested Covid-19 positive say the hospital management has accused them of not taking precautions when outside the hospital; the staff claim they are not provided with adequate PPE at work. (Photo: Paul Botes)

Healthcare workers are among those most at risk of contracting the sometimes deadly virus. In Gauteng, the current epicentre of Covid-19 in South Africa, more than 5 000 public and private healthcare workers have been infected. After outbreaks among healthcare workers at Netcare’s St Augustine Hospital in Durban and Mediclinic Morningside in Johannesburg, unions warned that the private healthcare sector was failing to control infections. 

According to Mediclinic spokesperson, Tertia Kruger, “less than 15% of our staff members [at Mediclinic Kloof] have tested positive for the virus”. With a staff complement of 456 workers, this means about 68 workers have been infected. 

Kruger would not disclose how many patients are currently being treated at the facility for Covid-19, although workers say they fear the true scale of the outbreak has been kept hidden from them.

One Mediclinic Kloof worker said she was among the first health workers to test positive for the virus. But management told her she contracted the virus while taking a taxi, the nursing assistant told the M&G.

“They said I didn’t get it at work. But we had one patient [who] was positive. And the day they discharged that person, they [management] asked me to clear out the room where the patient was isolated.”

The nursing assistant said she believes Mediclinic fumbled her case by failing to properly trace how she became infected. “The fact that they said I didn’t get it in the hospital was wrong, because now they don’t know where I got it.”

Another worker said she faced similar accusations when testing positive. “They questioned me. They asked if I wore a mask in the taxi … They don’t want to take the blame. They tell us we got the virus in the taxis and in the malls. They say we don’t wear masks when we go to the malls. But we tell them: ‘No, we don’t go anywhere without masks’.”

Healthcare workers at Mediclinic Kloof. (Photos: Paul Botes)

The worker believes Mediclinic does not want to take responsibility for the outbreak, so it does not have to close. “They only care about money.”

She added that she believes decisions taken by management are coloured by racism. “They take some people seriously; others, they don’t take seriously.”

Kruger said Mediclinic does not tolerate “any racist behaviour whatsoever”. She also denied that management had blamed workers for contracting the virus. 

But she added: “We understand that the risk of staff members contracting Covid-19 does not reside in the hospital in isolation, but also through community-based transmission, given the rapid increases of Covid-19 in Gauteng. Staff members have, therefore, been encouraged to be vigilant in their social distancing, hand hygiene and adhering to national mask policy when outside of the hospital environment.”

One worker in the hospital’s high-care unit said staff is accused of being “careless”. But the worker said inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) is likely the main reason for the outbreak among health workers at Mediclinic Kloof.

When dealing with patients under investigation, staff are given only a generic surgical mask and an apron, she said. The worker has comorbidities and is technically exempted from treating Covid-19 patients, but she says testing delays often mean she comes in contact with these patients.

“When you come the following day, then you find out that the person you were looking after with a normal apron and everything is positive. Then as time goes on and you find out you’re also positive. But when you tell them you got it from work, they say us blacks get it from taxis or malls. Or if you stay in Tembisa, they say you got it there because it is ‘overcrowded’.”

The worker said they wear the same mask for the duration of a 12-hour shift. Kruger said staff are provided with the appropriate PPE for the tasks they perform, in line with World Health Organisation and National Institute for Communicable Diseases recommendations.

“Mediclinic’s core priority is the safety of our patients, staff and associated doctors, and we strictly adhere to recommendations for the appropriate use of PPE, including the use of surgical face masks.”

Workers reporting “a damp, soiled or damaged mask, will have this item replaced”, Kruger added.

When asked if the hospital would consider closing for a period to deal with the outbreak, Kruger said: “While temporary closure of hospitals may be warranted at times … closure of a hospital will result in the loss of critical bed capacity and care services from the greater healthcare system and, as such, any decision in this regard is made diligently with the safety of staff and the patient community in mind.” 

Individual units have, at different times, halted admissions and undergone disinfection, she said.

But the worker with comorbidities is convinced the hospital is not handling the outbreak properly. She is constantly scared she will contract the virus. “Because all the patients lately have Covid. We can’t run away from it. It is a reality and we must face it. Everybody has Covid. I know people close to me who have passed away. So I think what Mediclinic is doing is really bad.”

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