(Image: AAP/James Ross)

An emergency nurse at Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, who asked to stay anonymous, tells Crikey how staff are stretched to the limit and exposed to COVID-19 while working their shifts. 

There have been massive breaches in safety. Paramedics are bringing patients in that we later find out have suspected COVID-19 symptoms and by then they’ve been in the waiting room with other patients and I’ve been treating them for three hours, taking blood and vitals and visiting other patients without proper protection. 

Clinical judgment is out the window. The situation is absolutely dire; it’s much worse than last year. 

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We’ve run out of isolation rooms, so patients with lower suspected symptoms of COVID-19 are just put behind a curtain. They should be behind closed doors, but they’re behind curtains. The virus is airborne, and it’s putting us and other patients at risk. 

We had a patient walk around the ward without a mask on and it wasn’t shut down for deep cleaning.

Another patient who later tested positive for COVID-19 was in the waiting room for hours wearing just a surgical mask. The waiting room wasn’t shut down for cleaning and staff weren’t furloughed because the hospitals thought our goggles and masks would be enough. They checked the CCTV footage to see who had been in close contact with the person, but the whole department should have been isolated. 

If there’s a COVID-19 positive case brought in from hotel quarantine, hallways are cleared, there’s a marshall making sure everyone is wearing personal protective equipment and the doctor does some of the nurses’ jobs to limit staff exposure. But for the waiting room, the hospital has cut corners. 

I only just got fitted for my N95 mask a few months ago. The mask I had been wearing last year only offered 10% protection; the hospital requires the masks to fit to provide 200% protection. 

There’s been an increase of mental health presentations who have self-harmed, saying they just can’t handle the risk of COVID-19 or lockdowns anymore. I’ve worked in the emergency department for years and I’ve never seen it this bad. 

We’re seven to eight nurses down each shift due to possible exposure to the virus, and 170 nurses down for the fortnight. We can use pull staff — staff who have been reassigned from other wards — but that’s not ideal as they’re not trained for emergencies. We have to be fully vaccinated to work in the ICU or in the emergency department so staff who can’t or won’t get vaccinated have been redeployed to other areas of the hospital. 

So emergency nurses are taking on extra shifts because it comes down to patient safety, and nurses want to support their patients. I’ve worked several double shifts, which can be 18 hours long, and by the end your head is on the table. I don’t believe the best quality of care could be happening in those situations.

Staff morale is horrendous, everyone is overworked and exhausted and absolutely foul. It’s crazy, it’s challenging, and the risks just spiral. 

A spokesperson for Alfred Hospital told Crikey there were strict protocols in place to keep staff and patients as safe as possible in the emergency department.

“Patients who come to the emergency department are screened by a streaming nurse on arrival [which] occurs prior to being seated in the waiting area, and includes a series of checks relating to any symptoms an individual may experience, which are related to COVID, or attendance at known exposure sites,” the spokesperson said. “If any risk is identified through the screening process, the patient is immediately isolated.

“Our staff are working hard to maintain a safe environment for all patients, while we continue to provide care for our community at this challenging time.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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