Hospitals carrying 'heavy burden' after nearly 1500 staff off the job after refusing COVID-19 vaccine

Hospitals are feeling the pressure after nearly 1500 District Health Board (DHB) staff were left without jobs because of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

Kaitaia Hospital has had to cancel two weeks of surgeries after a key worker refused to get vaccinated.

"They've had to, for a short period, cancel general anaesthetic surgery, so they can still do surgery that doesn't require anaesthetic," Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says.

That's 32 patients who've had their operations cut after someone in the surgical team "wasn't prepared to be vaccinated".

A temporary replacement will start next week so surgeries can resume.

But there are fears other small communities could be in a similar situation as DHBs lose staff because of the vaccine mandate.

"One person down can make a really big gap and we can't always guarantee there'll be locum cover to fill that gap," says Sarah Dalton, executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists.

Of the 80,000-strong DHB workforce, 1.8 percent have declined the vaccine. That's nearly 1500 workers who've either been stood down, resigned, or fired, including 52 doctors, 518 nurses, and 90 midwives.

"The people left behind are carrying a very, very heavy burden currently which is concerning us. We don't think they are working safely," Dalton says.

The NZ Nurses Organisation is also worried about its already understaffed sector.

"We're going to see burnout and people being even more stressed to cover gaps left by colleagues," says Kate Weston, professional nursing advisor at the organisation.

With 30,000 nurses working in New Zealand, Weston says having 518 of them refuse the vaccine is not a high number and the union has been impressed with the overall vaccine uptake of its members. 

Fifty-one DHB workers that have been stood down want the AstraZeneca vaccine instead of Pfizer. That vaccine will be available to them from this Friday, meaning they could be allowed back to work if they get that one instead.

"Some are waiting for AstraZeneca to become available, so we're hoping those numbers will gradually reduce," says Caroline Conroy from the Midwives Union.

A hope that all healthcare unions share.