Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize has repeatedly highlighted the importance of ensuring the safety and protection of healthcare workers in South Africa, as they are on the front line of the battle against Covid-19. However, pharmacists at the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg say they have neither been protected nor has their safety been prioritised.
They say their pleas for the effective implementation of preventative measures have fallen on deaf ears. As a result, nine pharmacists at the hospital have contracted Covid-19.
According to a pharmacist who wishes to remain anonymous, there was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for those dispensing medicines even before the first case of Covid-19 was recorded at the hospital. Although some received PPE, a request for all of them to get it was denied. “They [management] refused and said pharmacy does not need it. It’s only the nurses and doctors that need the equipment,” the pharmacist said.
Although pharmacists do not attend to patients directly, they are nevertheless at risk because medicine prescriptions are hand-delivered and they handle them without wearing gloves. “For me, management is nonexistent. Our cries have been falling on deaf ears. It’s like talking to a brick wall,” said the source.
Pharmacists have asked management to implement a system whereby they can work in shifts “because it’s a small space and it’s hard to perform social distancing if we all come to work”.
After learning that a staff member had Covid-19, the dispenser says they were told to come to the hospital for tests and were given some protective gear. “We didn’t understand, because why are you giving us PPE when we already have one of our members sick?”
When the pharmacists asked about the hospital’s policy to curb the spread of Covid-19 among staff members, they were told that it would be closed if infections occurred. “Also, that the whole place will be cleaned and fumigated, and those who had come into contact with the tested staff member would be quarantined for 14 days.”
But this has not been the case, the pharmacist says. “They denied us the 14-day quarantine. They said it’s not possible.”
At present they are given better quality PPE, says the source, and other safety procedures have been put in place since the infections were confirmed.
‘Pharmacists are not important’
One of the pharmacists who has Covid-19 blames the lack of PPE for becoming infected, saying, “It is not just the management but also the hospital’s department dealing with infection prevention and control that did not regard the pharmacy [personnel] as frontliners. They basically said, ‘You guys didn’t need these things because you are not of importance.’”
And when they complained about this lack of PPE in light of the infections among them, the infected pharmacist says that they were told that they might have contracted the virus elsewhere. “The thing is, we’ve been on lockdown. We are not going anywhere. Personally, I haven’t been to the shops. I’ve just been going to work and coming back home. They didn’t want to take responsibility.”
Another problem is that when they fell ill, they still had to work: “They [management] threatened us. They said, ‘If you guys don’t come, you’re not going to get paid.’ And you can’t even take sick leave.”
The pharmacist with coronavirus says the hospital initially checked temperatures. Despite a normal temperature being recorded, the pharmacist presented with flu-like symptoms. It was only after the test came back positive that the hospital granted occupational leave, which applies when an employee contracts an illness in the course of work.
The team tracing those with whom the pharmacist had been in contact took a week to test family members. The tests were inconclusive and “They said they are coming back to retest. No one came.”
The pharmacist has since returned to work and says the immediate family is fine, although no new tests have been done.
Health department responds
Kwara Kekana, spokesperson for the Gauteng member of the executive committee for health, Bandile Masuku, says pharmacists at Charlotte Maxeke hospital were given adequate PPE after the facility was assessed. “The province currently has enough supply of PPE and is continuously procuring stock.”
She says the pharmacy department has reduced its staff capacity to 41% to ensure that safety measures such as social distancing can be maintained. “The pharmacy attends to over 1 600 inpatients and 1 000 outpatients. Adequate staffing is needed to ensure there is no interruption of services,” she added.
After the pharmacy area was fogged and deep cleaned, Kekana says, those who didn’t have Covid-19 were asked to return to work. She adds that the province has a special team in each of its health districts to trace people who’ve had close contact with those diagnosed with the disease. “All positive pharmacy cases were referred to the district teams for tracing.”
Charlotte Maxeke Hospital is not the only healthcare facility where workers have been diagnosed with Covid-19. More than 100 staff members at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town have been infected. And it is not just public hospitals experiencing this predicament: in KwaZulu-Natal, two Netcare private hospitals in Durban, St Augustine’s and Kingsway, were temporarily closed after patients and staff members contracted Covid-19.
On 6 May, Mkhize said 511 healthcare workers had contracted Covid-19. No updated numbers were available at the time of publishing.
The National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union has raised concern about the number of healthcare workers getting infected. The union says insufficient protective gear places workers’ health at risk. “We have pointed out on numerous occasions the dangers of lack of adequate personal protective equipment, training on the proper use of PPE for healthcare workers and general education on how to deal with the virus,” it said in a statement.