Queenstown midwives are "appalled" at the conditions new mothers are being forced to endure due to the local hospital's COVID-19 response, with four practice partners forking out their own money to house women at a nearby hotel for their own comfort and safety.
A community dental clinic, located opposite Lakes District Hospital, is currently being used as a temporary maternity birthing unit as part of Southern District Health Board's (SDHB) COVID-19 response. On Saturday, Stuff revealed that a barely-functioning, portable outdoor shower is the only available washing amenity for new mothers post-birth.
A senior midwife and Queenstown Lakes Midwifery practice partner told Newshub that although midwives understand the need for expectant mothers to be protected against the virus, the conditions at the temporary birthing unit are "unacceptable".
"The core staff at the maternity ward did a great job at coming up with a solution, moving the mothers out of the hospital to protect the women. But in terms of the state of the shower, it is really just not acceptable on a number of levels," she told Newshub in an exclusive interview.
As Queenstown becomes progressively cooler and frosty, mothers who venture outside to access the washing facility are exposed to a number of risks, the midwife said.
"It's cold and dark. There's also no light out there, so to get to the shower they need to use a torch. There's no one who wants to use it, I personally wouldn't go in there myself and neither would any of my colleagues," she said.
"On a physiology level of what's actually happening with your body after you've given birth [sic], regardless of how long and tiring your labour is, it's extremely unsafe. Changing the environment and changing your temperature... your vasodilation, everything that's stopping you from hemorrhaging after birth, completely goes out the window when you're going into a cold environment.
"It's increasing women's risk of a number of emergencies, just by leaving the warm birth room and going outside [and] setting up the shower. It's not even [adequate] water pressure either. If you're in there and the shower's on, it's not going to be warm enough to prevent any of those issues."
Midwives are paying for hotel rooms out of pocket
Due to the dangers of the outdoor shower, the midwives have taken matters into their own hands to protect expectant mothers. A number of recent births have taken place at the local Ramada Suites Hotel, at a cost of $195 a day.
"That's what we've offered, as a practice, to all of our women so they have the amenities of a developed country... to give them the options they need and the basic level of care that every woman deserves. We're covering it out of our own pocket," she told Newshub.
"For us, losing that money wasn't something to bat an eyelid at... to have a home birth isn't an option for a lot of women in our community. So the only other [option being] to give birth in a dental unit without a shower and pain relief options just wasn't acceptable. Offering up that money as a solution seemed like the simple thing to do."
The outdoor shower was meant to be a temporary solution, she said, implemented after midwives reiterated the importance of women being able to access washing facilities post-birth. The first new mum who used the shower found the water pressure was too low for her to bathe properly, so washed herself in the basin instead.
The midwife says she and her practice partners have had numerous meetings with SDHB, but nothing has been done to rectify the problem since the temporary unit was established five weeks ago.
The delay in building a safe, indoor shower is partly due to the consent process, something the midwife is calling to be bypassed if possible.
"It urgently needs to be addressed. If there's a way to bypass the consent process and put in a better shower that's warm and stable and attached to the building... Having a baby is something mums will remember for the rest of their life. [They need] that basic level of care and supportive environment."
The midwives have been told they can move back into Lakes District Hospital Maternity Unit following post-lockdown renovations. A birthing pool, the construction of which has taken eight years to be officially approved, is being built before they can return to their ward.
As it is unknown how long the consent process for the new shower will take, midwives are concerned that women could be enduring the outdoor facility for months to come.
"Women's health is clearly being put last in the healthcare system with everything that's going on," she said. "Women's health should be a priority and the funding should be there. This should have never happened in the first place. It's appalling really.
"I wouldn't expect this [from] any developed countries."
The midwives say it's not the first time that maternity has been relegated to the bottom of the priority list, the measles outbreak last year eliciting a similar response.
They are now calling for the Government's support to fund the shower or bypass the drawn-out consent process.
"Women are already feeling uneasy with COVID and having to deal with a massive change to their birth plans. We need reassurance from DHBs that when we get back [to the maternity ward], we can stay there," said a practice partner.
"Maternity in Queenstown has become bottom priority."
Debi Lawry, associate general manager for Lakes District Hospital and Rural Health, addressed the allegations in a statement on Sunday.
"The temporary relocation of the Queenstown Maternity Unit from Lakes District Hospital to the Dental Unit building was a safety measure as part of the COVID-19 response. Whilst not purpose-built, the building has provided a safe environment, away from the potential exposure to COVID-19 positive cases, for mothers and babies to receive good, safe clinical midwifery care," she told Newshub.
"The temporary facility does not have a permanent shower, although some alternative, less accessible options have been provided. This has not appeared to be such an issue for the women, as they understood the constraints in this COVID-19 dominated world. They identified they wanted skilled midwifery care in a safe environment.
"We now have an opportunity to install a birthing pool in our hospital maternity wing, which is an important item of equipment for labouring women. This has been sought for a long time, and it is a great relief that we now have a timeframe for its installation. Once this pool is installed, plus an additional bathroom, the service will relocate back to the maternity wing. Currently this is scheduled for the end of next month.
"If there are delays, we will consider relocating sooner, and managing the building work as best we can.
"We thank the mothers and their midwives for the understanding, support and appreciation they have shown during this extraordinary time."
She confirmed that six babies have been delivered in the temporary maternity ward.