Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram has assured the Ministry of Health will be looking into concerns raised by the National Health Workers’ Union (NHWU) regarding potential Covid-19 exposure at two hospitals.
The NHWU on Friday warned of a “dangerous situation” at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex (EWMSC) in Mt Hope and the San Fernando General Hospital, where it believes staff members have been exposed to the virus.
NHWU president Nigel Small, in a letter to Parasram, said the workers have been required to report for duty despite being informed they may be secondary contacts of a Covid-positive person.
“On Thursday 30th July, 2020, our members who work in the kitchen at the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex were informed by their manager that contact-tracing exercises linked a positive Covid-19 case back to their workplace,” Small said.
“Our membership quickly reached out to us for guidance and, in so doing, were advised by the union to immediately sanitise themselves, move out of the area and await guidance from their manager.”
Small said to their amazement, the workers were instructed by a manager to return to the area and continue working.
He said there was no further review or clarification of the risk posed and the control measures needed to ensure the area was safe, and there was no risk of them contracting the virus.
Small said the situation has since degenerated to the point where the manager has sought disciplinary action against the workers.
“Similarly, on Saturday, 1 August, 2020, workers at the Main X-ray Department at the San Fernando General Hospital were informed by their head of department that several of them may have been in contact with a positive Covid-19 patient during the period 17-07-2020 and 24-07-2020,” Small wrote.
He said part of the area was sanitised last Sunday, and in both cases, temperature reading upon entry and other protocols have now been introduced.
He said the workers at both hospitals who were deemed to be “primary contacts” have been placed in self-quarantine.
However, those deemed to be “secondary contacts” continue to be on duty.
“It must be noted that those workers that are on duty are overwhelmed with fear and anxiety as no information is being provided to them whatsoever,” he said.
Small said the situation highlights the ongoing plight of health workers who are classified as essential workers, and who many believe do not have the right to stop work when there is immediate danger to life and health.
Small criticised what he called a lack of risk management in the workplace, and said it could lead to disastrous consequences.
Secondary contacts treated differently
Speaking during yesterday’s virtual media briefing, Parasram said he had not yet received the union’s letter, but would be approaching the North Central Regional Health Authority (NCRHA) and the South-West Regional Health Authority (SWRHA) to determine what occurred.
“Of course, the ministry will be looking into it to see what is happening,” he said.
Parasram, however, explained that secondary contacts of a Covid-positive patient are treated differently than primary contacts,
“Our protocol for contact tracing is very detailed and it depends on the level of exposure that a person may have. A primary contact is a person who would have had more than 15 minutes exposure to a known case... less than three feet away. Once that definition is met you are a primary case and we expect that you will be home quarantining.”
Secondary contacts are people who have been in contact with a primary contact, he noted.
He explained if the primary contact tests negative, it is unlikely the secondary contact would be at risk and they can go about as normal.
“Once your primary contact is negative, the secondary contacts are allowed to go to work and mingle, using your masks and making sure to monitor yourself for 14 days.”
On Friday, NCRHA chief executive Davlin Thomas told the Sunday Express that health workers do have an increased risk of exposure to the virus, but he assured that everything is being done to ensure their safety.
“We are on the front line and we are engaging with persons who may have Covid. We are a hospital. We are wearing the appropriate PPE, taking the precautions to ensure that people are not exposed to the virus.”
Thomas said the NCRHA has specific protocols to treat with health workers who are exposed, but he said he was unaware of the issues raised by the NHWU.
“We have our internal processes and protocols, so if they are claiming that someone has been exposed, all they need to do is to go through that process... so we could take the usual action with alacrity. We have been using that process successfully; you haven’t been hearing of staff being infected.”