By Malcolm Strachan
IF you heard last week’s announcement of 200 healthcare workers from Princess Margaret Hospital and Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre being placed in quarantine and the hairs on the back of your neck did not stand up, you aren’t considering the long-term sustainability of the healthcare system.
Particularly in Princess Margaret Hospital, resource shortages are constant. When tested by COVID-19, one can only imagine the dangers that result in 200 healthcare workers being taken offline.
Though mitigation measures to keep Bahamians at home have been the thrust of this government, without ramping up capacity to test as many Bahamians as possible we are going to run into some serious issues. Coupled with the global issue of enough personal protection equipment (PPE) to go around, keeping healthcare workers safe increasingly becomes a challenge.
The instance with the patient infected with COVID-19 that led to the healthcare worker quarantine is just the tip of the iceberg. While we hope there would be a zero to minimal amount of transfer that took place, we must acknowledge two things. First, an excellent step by the government was made to test all of these individuals who would came into contact with the ward in question. Second, we too must acknowledge that the lack of proactive widespread testing has us constantly behind the eight ball.
Imagine this. Let’s consider there is anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 doctors, nurses and auxiliary nurses at Princess Margaret Hospital. Then consider how this one scenario of a patient found out after the fact to be positive for COVID-19 led to the quarantine of 96 doctors and 62 nurses – approximately 10–15 percent of the system. With a quarantine period of 14 days - with some possibly in a shorter period of time – the situation doesn’t need to be repeated many times to decimate the workforce.
Though doctors from the private sector have been engaged to lend support, unless we alter how we’re fighting this disease to increase safety for doctors on the frontline, we’re really only doing this with a hope and a prayer.
Minister of Health Duane Sands said last week that of the 72 cases at the time this column was written, 15 are healthcare professionals. Without exponentially more testing to bring mitigation up to pace with the spread of the virus, we won’t be engaging in this battle strategically.
Simply put, we need to become a lot more aggressive to get further in front of this. Otherwise, our healthcare workers will continue to become either infected or quarantined.
Another issue as healthcare workers continue to be exposed is what defines a “frontline worker”. As we understand it, a frontline health worker has historically been considered to be those who provide care directly to their communities. However, possible division on this issue seems inevitable as the government’s commitment to provide physicians with a $5,000 honorarium and a provision of a life insurance benefit of $100,000 in the event of an untimely death only applies to some frontline workers – those on the “frontline of the health sector’s response” as indicated by the Ministry of Health.
Such fine print has been unsettling, especially for junior doctors who comprise the majority of the PMH workforce. For doctors that work in the same hospital, all encountering a high degree of risk and exposure to the virus, for only some of them to be considered frontline workers is a slap in the face to every doctor stepping into the belly of the beast to treat our citizens.
Moreover, with grumblings of possible pay cuts in the sector, there should be cause for great concern. The last thing the government should be considering is cutting the salary of junior physicians who are the driving force behind healthcare at PMH. They are already no strangers to low morale because of a lack of appreciation.
No doubt, the money needs to come from somewhere to buy testing kits, PPE and to address the looming disaster of mass unemployment. However, the healthcare sector needs to remain untouched. Before that, we need to see Parliamentarians giving up their salaries and the business community emerging to the fore to donate badly needed resources – some have already stepped up to the plate.
Make no mistake, we’re asking a lot of our healthcare workers. And as this continues, if it’s any way we can repay them, it is by adhering to the guidelines given by our medical experts and advocating for our healthcare professionals as we continue to go toe-to-toe with this pandemic.