Coronavirus: Waikato Hospital doctor urging Government to make face masks mandatory

A senior doctor at Waikato Hospital, where two nurses tested positive to COVID-19, has called on the Government to immediately make wearing masks compulsory for all hospital staff and the public.

Dr Sheng-yang Liao, Geriatrician & Clinical Director of Older Person and Rehabilitation Service at Waikato Hospital, told Newshub four medical teams have been sent home since the nurses returned positive results and now his elderly patients are at risk.

He wants all hospital staff, regardless of who they're interacting with, to wear masks to stop the virus spreading.

"Prime Minister and the Ministry of Health, and all Kiwis - if you can not keep social distance, please wear a mask. Any mask is better than no mask," Dr Liao says.

Although two of his colleagues have both tested positive, current rules mean staff are only required to wear masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) if they're interacting with possible COVID-19 patients.

"All the non-COVID patients, nobody wears masks. And I'm really concerned our old patients may get infected and they may die."

He believes the number of cases at the hospital will increase, and one patient is currently being tested as a possible case.  

"The number will grow. There will be other staff members who get infected and there will be patients who get affected."

The DHB said it has stood down 80 staff members following the positive results. 

"As each day progresses and more information comes to hand we will be able to bring people back to work as we rule out risk factors," as spokespersons told Newshub. 

The Ministry of Health says it has increased stocks of PPE but it's guidelines state this "does not mean all health workers should wear a mask with every patient". 

They go on to say "we can't afford to waste or misuse a valuable resource".

The ministry's Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, says its advice is based on expert opinion. 

"The guidance is good. It's based on the advice of specialists and likewise, it's consistent with the advice from the World Health Organization."

But in the United States, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is urging everyone to wear masks.

The CDC says significant numbers of people with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, so the public should be wearing masks, especially in public settings where social distancing may be difficult like supermarkets.

Dr Liao thinks Kiwis should too.

"If you cannot get masks, make your own. Any mask is useful."

The Ministry of Health has been under pressure over its PPE distribution. And on Thursday Dr Bloomfield reiterated what he has said before which is all DHBs and hospitals have "plenty" of PPE. But Dr Liao disagrees.

"I don't think there's enough masks, despite Dr Bloomfiled saying we have sufficient supply. We don't."

He says emergency department staff are being told not to change or rip single-use gowns. Newshub has contacted the Waikato DHB on this issue but it is yet to respond.

"They're planning to recycle them, which isn't a bad idea. We don't have enough," Dr Liao said.

Dr Liao's message is unequivocal - demand masks, wear one, and stay safe.

The DHB spokesperson said PPE is available to staff and there is “no restriction” on its use. 

"We have an expert advisory group who, based on research and evidence, determine the most appropriate use of PPE. Shortage is not part of that decision making." 

Late today, the Nurses Organisation told Newshub the two nurses believe they were exposed to COVID-19 because senior staff restricted access to personal protective equipment.

The organisation's president Kerri Nuku says a patient came on to their ward with respiratory symptoms, so nurses put masks and gowns on, but were then told by senior doctors to take them off "because they weren't needed".

The patient was not tested for COVID-19 and was later discharged.

But Nuku says the patient had a family member visiting them who had been in contact with a confirmed case.

The nurses have made complaints to the Waikato DHB. 

In a statement on Friday, the DHB said it has very clear policies and protocols for the use of personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

"The guidance for appropriate use of PPE is based on research and evidence and does not give consideration to stock levels," it read. 

"The DHB strongly refutes any suggestion that PPE is being restricted and staff prevented from accessing masks and other protective equipment.  

"Masks are available in all areas of the hospital and communications have previously been released to staff notifying them of the availability and use.

"The DHB has gone beyond best practice and provided PPE in areas considered very low risk and has encouraged and invested in significant alternate ways of working with patients and staff to avoid person to person physical contact such as Telehealth and videoconferencing."