More masks for community care workers

The Government will release "a large number" of masks and other protective equipment to DHBs to distribute for community and home care workers, Marc Daalder reports

Community care workers who have been left without access to personal protective equipment (PPE) will now have their wishes granted as the Government moves to distribute "a large number" of masks to a wide range of healthcare workers, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said Tuesday.

"There has been a lot of ongoing interest in personal protective equipment. It's very important of course that we keep our frontline health workers safe. I am also conscious that our frontline healthcare workers not only need to be safe, they need to feel safe," Bloomfield said.

"I know that many of them are particularly concerned about elements of [official] advice. I think it's very good advice, it's from infectious disease specialists and it's designed to ensure they know what PPE to wear in different situations. But I am conscious that many of our frontline healthcare workers are concerned about not having access to masks when they feel they need them to feel safe."

"We're undertaking a process at the moment of releasing a large number of masks from our national stocks out to our District Health Boards and they will be distributing in their regions masks to frontline health workers in a range of organisations, including our home and community support workers, disability support workers, some NGO workers where they have face to fact contact, pharmacies and other providers."

"Our members are relieved to learn masks will be released to the DHBs and made available to community, disability and home support workers. This is the right decision because it will help keep staff, clients and their families safe," says Kerry Davies, National Secretary of the PSA.

"We now expect the Ministry of Health guidelines around the use of masks, gloves and aprons will be updated to reflect the critically important role support workers play in community health, and the unique dangers they face in terms of exposure and spreading the virus. We don't want this PPE to be locked away for a rainy day. The rainy day is already here."

Bloomfield announced the decision as part of his daily update on the Covid-19 situation in New Zealand. As of Tuesday morning, there were 58 new cases of Covid-19 in the country - 48 confirmed and 10 probable. That brings the total number of cases to 647, 74 of whom have recovered.

Although there were nearly 20 fewer new cases on Tuesday than Monday, Bloomfield said it was too early to say whether this was indicative of a downward trend in the spread of Covid-19.

"Whilst this is a drop in the number over the last day or two, I have no sense that this is a drop overall and our expectation is that the number of cases will continue to increase." It could be due to fewer tests being carried out on Sunday, he said. 

More than 21,000 tests have been carried out for Covid-19 and that number is likely to spike over the next few days as the Government prepares to widen its case definition for the virus. As it stands, a person wanting a test needs to have a connection to overseas travel or a confirmed case or they may be refused. Doctors can use their clinical judgment to override this requirement but it is unclear how often this is happening.

Now, Bloomfield said, as it has become apparent that community transmission is ongoing in New Zealand and there are cases that have no connection to overseas travel or another case, that definition is being looked at again.

Bloomfield also highlighted the persistence of seven clusters of cases in New Zealand. Because they are connected to a known or likely patient zero, these aren't classified as community transmission but they do represent the spread of Covid-19 within communities.

As of Monday morning, the largest cluster involved students and staff at Auckland's Marist College, which is linked to 47 cases.

The case of a nurse in Queenstown who hadn't treated any patients with Covid-19 but contracted the virus nonetheless has also raised concerns. Newsroom reported on Tuesday morning that transmission of Covid-19 within hospitals has been credited as one of the reasons Italy has struggled to manage its devastating outbreak.

Bloomfield said he couldn't totally guarantee there was no transmission within hospitals, but that hospitals were taking more precautions.

"It's impossible for me to say I'm a 100 percent confident [there is no transmission within hospitals] but what I will say is the learning from the case on the West Coast [where a Covid-19 case was treated for several days as just influenza] was that anyone coming to a hospital, for example, through an emergency department, with a respiratory infection should be treated and managed with appropriate PPE as if they have Covid-19 until that's ruled out," he said.

New projections released on Tuesday morning "paint a sobering picture of what the impact of Covid-19 would be in Aotearoa New Zealand if we were not taking a very decisive and strict approach to our response - that is, the implementation of the level four measures," Bloomfield said.

"Without the actions currently being taken, the uncontrolled spread of Covid-19 would clearly exact a high price on New Zealand in terms of its impact on our healthcare system, on our healthcare workers and, of course, in a large number of deaths. Each of the models does present a stark choice between acting decisively, going early and going hard, and the counterfactual, which, in I think anyone's terms was unacceptable."

Newsroom reported that the modelling predicted tens of thousands of New Zealanders would die without any policy intervention.

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