Health workers afraid of passing Covid to family

More than 180 health care workers have died due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and about two-thirds of these front liners say they need more personal protective equipment.

This was revealed on Thursday by the survey conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN)  Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine.

The data from the survey also suggests that health workers don’t know the correct use of PPE in some clinical situations, such as to use an N95 mask when treating a patient in an emergency or how surgical masks are used in critical and intensive care of Covid-19 patients.
About 7 600 healthcare professionals participated in the survey. They were asked about, amongst many issues,  access to PPE  in the workplace, the training they received, their general wellbeing as well as awareness and attitudes to the novel coronavirus.

The launch of the survey results comes just after health minister Zweli Mkhize announced that more than 24 000 health care workers had been infected with Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in South Africa. Another 181 have died because of the virus bringing the national infection of health care workers to 5% of all confirmed cases.

“We have also kept track of the level of infection on health workers globally,” Mkhize said during a press briefing on Tuesday.
“As part of continuous monitoring, we have requested provinces to verify further and break down this data so that we know exactly how many health workers have demised or recovered.”

In July, the African division of the World Health Organization (WHO) raised concerns over the rising numbers of health workers who were infected with the virus on the continent. 

“The growth we see in Covid-19 cases in Africa is placing an ever-greater strain on health services across the continent,” WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti said.

“This has very real consequences for the individuals who work in them, and there is no more sobering example of this than the rising number of health worker infections.” WHO Africa said PPE shortages and weak infection prevention and control measures increase health worker’s risk of infection.

Labour unions have also raised concerns about the availability of PPE and other measures that have been put in place to protect health care workers. This includes safe transport to travel to work, regular screening for Covid-19, rotation of staff and providing counselling sessions due to the emotional and mental toll of working on the frontlines.

Although Gauteng and Western Cape have the highest number of cases in the country, health workers in these provinces believed they were less likely to contract the virus while those in North West and Free State had the highest risk perception. The HSRC and UKZN survey also investigated the emotional and physical impact of Covid-19 on the country’s health workers between 11 April and 7 May.
The majority of the workers were highly concerned about passing on Covid-19 to their family members.The mental health of front liners has also been thrust into the spotlight as many have spoken out about their work conditions and the fears they have about contracting the virus or infecting their families.

“The level of concern for personal and family well-being and for passing COVID-19 infection to family members was significantly higher than for other possible issues of concern,” reads the report. 

Responding to the survey results, clinical manager at the Edenvale Hospital in Pietermaritzburg  Dr Nhlakanipho Gumede says the survey is valuable because it mandates government to respond to the concerns of health workers.

“Health workers want to be prepared. They want to know that somebody understands and wants to respond to their concerns too. They want to be protected against being infected and that the risk of their family members being infected as well. Lastly, they want to be prepared to be provided with the relevant information and information doesn’t have to come once,” he adds.  

Meanwhile, head of the Health Professionals Council of South Africa Kgosi Letlape says he is concerned about the “cavalier attitude of medical practitioners”.

“Are doctors taking things [this pandemic] too lightly? Are they infecting their families at home? We’ve just buried nine colleagues in the last week in relation to Covid-19,” he says. “The issue of risk perception becomes is real because people do as they see. It all becomes a joke if we’re taking the pandemic seriously, but not acting seriously.” 

The survey revealed that the level of concern for health and wellbeing significantly differed across the various healthcare professions with nurses having the lowest health and wellbeing as compared to other health workers. For instance, nearly half of the nurses surveyed were extremely concerned about family members and personal fitness — with three out of every five fearing to infect their family members. On the other hand, health workers in the public sector experienced “higher psychological distress” than those working in the private sector while in general those that were more stressed reported lower levels of general health than those were less stressed.
Close to 50% of the survey participants indicated they worked in public health facilities and about a third reported working in the private sector — while 3% said they work in both. 

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Pontsho Pilane
Pontsho Pilane is an award-winning journalist interested in health, gender, race and how they intersect. She holds three degrees in media studies and journalism from Wits University

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