Coronavirus: Doctors fear lack basic protective gear is putting them at risk

A doctors' union says New Zealand might not have enough ICU beds to handle what's coming.

So far nearly 300 Kiwis have been confirmed infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. About 27,000 people have died worldwide from the disease, its quick spread overwhelming unprepared health systems in countries like Italy and the UK.

Though New Zealand's remote location has given us the chance to go into lockdown before any deaths could be recorded, doctors fear years of underinvestment could prove our undoing.

"There's always that worry with such a limited number of ICU beds that they may not be enough," Association of Salaried Medical Specialists executive director Sarah Dalton told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

"I think that if you look at our GDP spend on health, it's a little bit lower than similar countries to us. We certainly think we should have more senior doctors in place than we currently do. And I think if you talk to other health sector unions, they will probably say similar things around junior doctors, nursing, Allied Health."

Doctors and experts who study the spread of infectious diseases say locking down, and less drastic measures such as social distancing, are the only way to prevent the virus from getting out of control. The idea is that by 'flattening the curve', the number of cases of infection at any one time will be enough for the health system to handle. 

That could take months, if not a couple of years - or at least until a vaccine is available.

"The experiences they've had in Italy and Spain, you know, where the number of cases and the number of intensive care cases took off at such a quick rate and spread so quickly, hospitals were literally overwhelmed," said Dalton.

"And I think for a lot of those doctors, they weren't really able to treat people. They simply had to sort people out. And a lot of those people died. I mean, it's horrific and it's not the sort of thing we expect to happen these days. 

"I hope that the measures that we've put in place in terms of the lockdown are going to flatten that curve to the extent that it won't be something our doctors are faced with here."

But in recent days there have been complaints from nurses and others on the front line of the fight that they don't have enough personal protective equipment (PPE). 

"There have been members that have spoken to me and emailed me and said, 'If I go onto this shift without the PPE gear then I will be turning around and walking off,'" New Zealand Nurses Organisation co-leader Kerri Nuku told Newshub.

And an anonymous letter written by a frontline healthcare worker, addressed to a manager and seen by Newshub Nation, complained staff and customers in supermarkets have masks while they don't.

"We buy industrial respirators from Bunnings and hope no one will tell on us when we wear them. We don't know if they work, but we are scared," the letter said.

"We asked you to buy masks in early February, you told us not to catastrophise. We asked you to help us make escalation plans and practice them. You tell us no practicing in masks we can't waste them. You removed us from committees and meetings. We ask for proper mask fittings (that should have happened years ago), we are told we are not a priority."

And an email sent to Newshub from a healthcare assistant said they were lacking basics like hand sanitiser.

"I love my job. I love my patients. I love the incredible team that I am lucky enough to be a part of but I do not love seeing my coworkers and I being disrespected, unsupported, pushed to exhaustion and put at risk."

Sarah Dalton.
Sarah Dalton. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Newshub Nation she'd like to "tighten up" the distribution network to ensure DHBs and hospitals have what they need at all times because there isn't any shortage.

"New Zealand's in a very lucky position to also have a producer of masks in Whanganui. They produce 60,000 surgical masks a day. But also 40,000 of those specific masks that our health workers need. And that is daily. And so that is a very useful resource for us to have... I've heard of some DHBs saying that they may have in some cases run out. There is no reason for that. We have good supply."

About 640,000 masks were sent to DHBs on Thursday, enough to last two weeks. 

"We also have 1.9 million aprons and gowns, 2.7 million pairs of gloves and 60,000 eye protection stocks," Health Minister David Clark said.

Dalton said the medical community has been complaining for a long time about resourcing and conditions.

"They want to know that they can come and go from work safely, that they're not placing their families at risk. 

"And some of them have made the call that they need to self-isolate and kind of leave their family bubble in order to better protect them. And that's a tough call to make. But if you've got really little kids, they don't easily understand that it's not okay to hug mum or dad when they get home from work."