Cov-Positive Nurses Are Working in NSW Hospitals Due to Severe Staffing Shortages
By Elias Visontay
Covid-positive nurses are being recalled to work in hospitals across New South Wales – in breach of state health protocols – as hospital managers resort to desperate measures to staff facilities buckling under the Omicron outbreak.
Guardian Australia has been contacted by multiple nurses working across several hospitals in the state who are alarmed at finding themselves working alongside Covid-positive colleagues, as 2,500 health workers are in isolation across NSW.
The public hospitals span three local health districts in NSW and include major Sydney hospitals and smaller regional facilities.
All of the nurses say they had received unofficial, verbal advice from their hospitals in recent days that Covid-positive nurses could leave their mandated isolation to work, provided they were asymptomatic and wore personal protective equipment.
However, some claimed they saw Covid-positive nurses on wards with obvious symptoms, including coughing and sneezing.
At one Sydney hospital, the Covid-positive nurses appeared to be limited to working in Covid wards. However, at other hospitals, nurses said they were treating non-Covid patients and interacting with Covid-negative staff.
“God help any non-Covid patient in a hospital right now. They are sitting ducks,” one nurse told Guardian Australia.
“It’s like everyone has given up. I’m absolutely devastated. It’s a circus … positive nurses working with healthy staff and non-Covid patients.”
Protocols for healthcare workers in NSW have been loosened in recent days, including an exemption announced on New Year’s Eve to allow workers who are close contacts that should be isolating for seven days, to return to work if they are asymptomatic and deemed essential by their employer.
However, a NSW Health spokesperson confirmed that Covid-positive nurses do not fall under this exemption.
“Healthcare workers in NSW who test positive to Covid-19 are required to isolate at home and are not permitted to return to work until they are released from isolation,” they said.
Nurses who expressed concern about allowing Covid-positive colleagues to return to work stressed that the advice was given in an unofficial capacity, as managers were left with few other options to ensure patients could be cared for.
The nurses requested their names and employers remain confidential to avoid identifying them.
The revelation comes days after Guardian Australia obtained a leaked memo that revealed critically understaffed public hospitals in NSW were planning to fly in nurses from overseas.
Desperate attempts also included managers begging local staff to cancel leave and offering $250 daily incentives on top of public holiday penalties.
Meanwhile, the western NSW LHD is offering nurses $823 a week on top of their wage to work in the region during January.
The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, has said the health system “remains strong”, and his health minister, Brad Hazzard, has also defended the system.
On Monday, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, backed up these comments, insisting Australia’s health system could manage the “very different virus” of the Omicron variant.
However, the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association general secretary, Brett Holmes, accused governments of presenting an overly optimistic version of the state of the health system.
Holmes said reports of Covid-positive nurses returning to work “shows the level of desperation we’ve got into our health system”.
“To try and force potential sick and infectious staff into the hospitals to work, that places everyone at risk.”
Holmes told Guardian Australia he was “absolutely opposed” to allowing Covid-positive nurses to return to work before finishing their isolation and testing negative – but noted such a policy had occurred in parts of Europe and the United States during the peaks of their outbreaks.
“There has been discussion about this here, because it’s been done overseas, and talk of the idea is no doubt rife amongst desperate managers looking for staff. They might well be preparing for this,” Holmes said.
Holmes added the practice risked spreading Covid to vulnerable patients in hospital for unrelated reasons.
“We know these types of patients can die with Covid. If nurses [are] knowingly being told to go in there and play a bit of Russian roulette as to whether their PPE is perfect all the time, it’s an extraordinary expectation to work in those circumstances,” Holmes said.