KZN doctors, nurses exhausted as they battle Covid-19 ‘war’
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Durban - KwaZulu-Natal doctors and nurses are exhausted and “drowning” under the surge of seriously ill Covid-19 patients.
Healthcare workers who spoke to The Mercury on Tuesday likened the pandemic to a “war”.
They said they faced severe stress and trauma as many colleagues had become infected and they dealt with daily reports of those who had died as a result of the virus.
SA Medical Association KZN chairperson Dr Mvuyisi Mzukwa said doctors were “drowning because hospitals are overloaded” with Covid-19 infections but also with patients injured during alcohol-related incidents such as stabbings and motor vehicle accidents.
He said most seriously ill Covid-19 patients presenting at hospitals were elderly people with complications, while many men tended to arrive too late to be treated.
Mzukwa said alcohol-related trauma patients such as those who had been stabbed in the chest and abdomen or who had head injuries, needed theatre and ICU, and were taking resources away from Covid-19 patients.
“Private hospitals are full and the government hospitals are full. The terrible thing is you find patients have to wait for beds. I was told that at one of the hospitals in Wentworth, patients had to be on a waiting list to be ventilated. I have never heard of such a thing to be on a waiting list for ventilation. Some of those patients will die.”
He said hospitals were faced with serious staff shortages, even before the pandemic, and now had to extend 12-hour shifts to 18-hour shifts, to fill in for staff who fell ill or had to self-isolate.
“The morale is low because of poor quality PPE and poor communication from management,” said Mzukwa
He said the immense stress also impacted doctors’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to infection.
“We almost on a daily basis get reports that a doctor has passed. We need the assistance of the public in terms of respecting the restrictions imposed because they are meant to relieve the healthcare system.”
Durban doctor Dr Rinesh Chetty said all healthcare workers were working around the clock.
“All units have been plagued by staff shortages, burnout and illness. Both public and private sectors are struggling to meet adequate numbers to man the required beds to service the massive surge of ill patients. The is no end in sight, no chance to breathe or rest at the moment. Your phone is ringing until it is flat and you are drenched in sweat from PPE, too scared to eat or drink and when you get home, you face the biggest fear of bringing the virus home to your loved ones.
“It feels like we have been drafted into an invisible war while everyone else is on holiday outside, oblivious to what we are dealing with until it affects them directly. “
He said the loss of colleagues and mentors was becoming difficult.
“Every morning, we wake up to another report or message that a friend has passed away or fallen ill. The medical community in South Africa is small and close knit, so an injury to one is an injury to all,” said Chetty.
Democratic Nurses Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) KZN secretary Mandla Shabangu said nurses struggled to cope, many fell ill and were traumatised by the sudden deaths of their colleagues.
“They are demotivated, unprotected and unsupported by management on many fronts. Where people get infected, they don’t replace them, so while hospitals are full, they don’t replace the nurses who go into quarantine. They are traumatised and there is fear. One day, you are working with your colleague and the next day they are dead and you are expected to report for duty as if nothing happened,” he said.
Netcare chief executive Dr Richard Friedland said the surge of cases, particularly in the Eastern Cape, Limpopo, Western Cape and KZN had placed a “significant and unprecedented demand” on Netcare’s healthcare facilities.
He said in these provinces, the number of patients admitted to hospital far exceeded the number during the first wave of the pandemic. Dr Friedland said Netcare has had to substantially increase its oxygen capacity at all hospitals and had urgently recalled all frontline staff from leave.
He said ICU and high care, ventilators or certain oxygen delivery modalities might not be available to all patients.
“Where possible, we will seek to transfer patients, once stabilised, to one of our other hospitals, should they have capacity. Our clinicians will make all of these decisions based on the availability of resources and their best clinical judgement,” said Dr Friedland.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said on Tuesday the safety of staff remained of “paramount concern” and the government was concerned about the rising numbers of professionals becoming infected with Covid-19.
“It will greatly assist us to welcome, in a few days, 2 367 medical interns, 1 693 medical community service practitioners who will form part of a 7 895 strong community service workforce from all categories. This will provide relief to our exhausted frontline workers. Currently, overall availability of PPE is at 87.1%,” he said.