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#CoronavirusSA: Care for mentally ill under threat at Witrand Hospital  

Written by Nthusang Lefafa

Staff say that a Covid-19 infection surge in the staff and patient population, coupled with a previous lack of personal protective equipment is not conducive to the treatment of Covid-19 patients. 

Last month, 100 patients and six staff members tested positive at Witrand Hospital, Potchefstroom  a number which raised concern with both frontline healthcare workers and the provincial health department.  

The psychiatric hospital has a total of 889 beds with 720 beds reserved for intellectually disabled patients, 154 for psychiatric patients and 15 for physical rehabilitation.  

Speaking to Health-e NewsLerato*, a nurse who works at the hospital says that she worries about contracting Covid-19 at work and passing it onto her family members. She also believes that the environment is not conducive for the treatment of Covid-19 patients. 

“The challenges we face at Witrand Hospital is to nurse Covid-19 patients under difficult circumstances. Our wards are extremely cold and there are no heating systems,” she says.

Like most vulnerable healthcare workers in South Africa, her “daily fear is to be infected with Covid-19 and transmit it to herfamily 

I don’t feel safe at work because some staff members and patients who tested negative were not re-tested to confirm if their status is the same, or if it has changed,” she adds.  

Another challenge that’s unique to the hospital is that most of their patients are intellectually disabled and mentally ill, so it is “difficult to train them about the correct use of PPE [personal protective equipment],” she says.

Shortage of testing kits   

“There is a shortage of testing kits so it is difficult to re-test patients who tested negative and those who do not show any symptoms,” explains Lerato*. 

She admits that PPE has been issued by the department but says it was done only after most of the staff members and patients had tested positive.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says one of the biggest challenges in protecting health workers has been the global shortage of personal protective equipment. 

Speaking at a media briefing, WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, says that “in the WHO African Region, which is mainly sub-Saharan Africa, we have had more than 115 000 cases in the past week, and 93% of these cases occurred in 10 countries, including over 74% (so almost three quarters) coming from South Africa. 

Moeti continues: “Health workers have concerns about taking the virus home, they suffer psychosocial pressures from working around the clock and in some communities, they face stigma and discrimination.” 

Government task team  

Meanwhile, the North West Health department explained, in a statement, that the facility was decontaminated following the outbreak. No patients have left the facility and visitation was cancelled and limited to discharged patients and family only. 

task team, inclusive of labourwas established to discuss Covid-19 related issues. Weekly task team meetings are being held with updates and guidelines shared with all staff members.   

Management conducted staff support visits in an effort to allay fears and anxiety and to emphasise appropriate use of PPE and social distancing while psychological support was established for staff in need of counselling. Time will tell if these efforts will have the intended effect at Witrand Hospital, with nurses like Lerato* still fearing for their life, and the lives of their family.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) in North West says government must do more to protect workers against possible infection. 

“As NEHAWU in the province, we believe the infection of one worker is one too many. The infection of healthcare workers puts more strain to our healthcare facilities considering that we have always struggled with understaffing in the healthcare sector.  

Loss of frontline workers and closure of hospitals limits the number of beds needed to treat 
patients and the adequate number of workers needed for healthcare facilities to function,” provincial spokesperson Patrick Makhafanesays. – Health-e News 

 

(*) – Not real name 

About the author

Nthusang Lefafa