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Pressure on nurses at Dunedin Hospital has left some so stressed they have been crying in the corridors, while patients have had to wait in hallways for a cleaner to be found who can prepare a room for them.
Acute staff shortages, compounded by illness, have forced the Southern District Health Board to tightly restrict visitors to those allowed only for compassionate reasons.
Yesterday, chief operating officer Hamish Brown revealed the extent to which Dunedin Hospital has been afflicted by Covid, saying cases had been found in wards on the third, fourth and eighth floors of the hospital.
"These exposure events may result in other wards being temporarily used as Covid-19 wards or Covid-19 positive patients being isolated in negative-pressure single rooms outside of the Covid-19 ward," Mr Brown said.
"Our staff are working hard to care for all patients at Dunedin Hospital and by limiting the number of visitors to the hospital, we increase our ability to contain any further exposure events.
"Limiting visitors is part of our escalation plan and a normal response to an exposure event."
Southland Hospital had a similar Covid incursion last month and reopened for visitors after a week.
Dunedin Hospital’s dedicated Covid-19 ward is on the seventh floor, and yesterday it was at capacity with 25 cases. A further person with Covid-19 was in intensive care.
New Zealand Nurses Organisation president Anne Daniels, who works at Dunedin Hospital, understands the staffing dilemma both professionally and personally. She is off work in isolation as a household contact of her husband, a fellow nurse who — despite being unwell — is desperate to get back to the wards to help his colleagues.
"Everything is backing up, the emergency department remains full because they can’t get patients in, and when they do they often don’t have rooms to put them in, and the support staff are also being compromised with Covid."
Mrs Daniels had been told of at least one instance when a bed could not be opened because a cleaner could not be found to prepare it for a new patient.
Although the nursing workforce was under almost intolerable strain and morale was low, people had buckled down and were determined to work if they could, Ms Daniels said.
"Everyone is working hard and pulling together, even though conditions are extreme ... they tell me they are all stressed and people are crying in the corridors, especially the newer nurses who haven’t got the experience of looking after patients who are sicker than they would normally look after."
Nurses were regularly working 12 hours or more, and were often called upon to work double or triple shifts. While they would do so to care for patients, working such long hours did increase the risk of mistakes being made, Ms Daniels said.
Nurses could not simply transfer from one ward to another, she said.
"Even though I am an expert ED nurse, if I was asked to work in ICU it would be very difficult for me. The equipment is different, the systems are different, you don’t know who to call on, it’s not that simple."
Health Minister Andrew Little, who was in Dunedin yesterday, said with the prevalence of Covid-19 and other infections, all hospitals were having to manage their effects on staff, patients and visitors.
"It does not surprise me that we are seeing hospitals taking these measures. They are all just short-term while there are various infections around and contagion, and we just have to manage as best we can."
Pressure on the hospital system was one of the criteria to be considered for elevation of the Covid-19 alert status level on the traffic light system, but Mr Little said there was no indication the setting needed to be changed from orange at this point.
"Part of the preparation for this winter was that we did expect a higher level of staff absenteeism ... that is happening," he said.
"We are still in the long, arduous task of filling the large number of vacancies in the health system, but we will continue to plug away at all those things and provide health services. People should still turn up to their hospitals if they are unwell and need hospital services.
"Hospitals will keep going."
Yesterday, 6232 new community cases of Covid-19 were reported nationally by the Ministry of Health, including 467 new cases in the Southern district.
There were a further 14 deaths reported yesterday, one of which was in Southern.
The region’s 467 new cases included 182 in Dunedin, 68 in Queenstown Lakes, 63 in Invercargill and 52 in Waitaki.
There are 3397 active cases of Covid-19 in Otago and Southland.