Health workers at Tygerberg Hospital protest on World Nurses Day over better working conditions after two of their staff pass away of Covid-19.​ Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Health workers at Tygerberg Hospital protest on World Nurses Day over better working conditions after two of their staff pass away of Covid-19.​ Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

Public hospitals have once again come under the spotlight for alleged breaching of Covid-19 health and safety regulations, amid growing fears that they are becoming breeding grounds for spreading the virus.

This after more than 150 health care workers have tested positive for Covid-19 at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, according to the Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA. Hospersa is affiliated to the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa).

The union, which represents more than 60,000 private and public health-care sector workers, on Tuesday called on government to shut down the facility — SA's second largest hospital — “to prevent a catastrophe from happening”.

In April, St Augustine's Hospital in Durban was shut down after more than 60 people tested positive for coronavirus, with close to 50 of those positive having been staff members.

Other public health-care facilities across the country have temporarily closed for deep cleaning after staff tested positive, underscoring the risk many front line workers face in their line of duty. This has also shone the spotlight on the government's capacity to deliver much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) to its facilities, prompting unions to tell their members to stay away from work if there is no protective equipment.

On Tuesday, Hospersa provincial chair Gerald Lotriet said Tygerberg Hospital had the  “direct potential of becoming the major breeding ground and killing field for Covid-19”.

The Western Cape is the epicentre of Covid-19 in SA, with more than 22,000 cases, followed by Gauteng with more than 4,200 and the Eastern Cape at more than 4,100.

So far 1,010 public-sector health-care workers have been confirmed with Covid-19 in the Western Cape, 462 of whom have recovered. But 542 health-care workers, including 333 nurses and 32 doctors, are on sick leave with Covid-19. Six health-care workers from the province have died from the disease.

Lotriet said Tygerberg Hospital was so overwhelmed that the public and visitors walked into the facility unchecked and unscreened, Covid-19 patients were not quarantined safely, and those who had died from the pandemic were moved casually across the hospital's corridors.

“The ... hospital is becoming a breeding ground for Covid-19 due to the lack of preventive measures being taken to stop the spread of this deadly virus. Hospersa calls on the [employment & labour department] to act swiftly without fear or favour by closing down the hospital to avoid a brewing catastrophe which will derail the country’s fight against Covid-19.”

Nehawu Western Cape provincial deputy secretary Emilia Maloi said they expected more people to die from Covid-19 in the province. “Tygerberg Hospital is a breeding field for Covid-19. Our staff are anxious, they are fearing for their lives. These are front line workers who are bread winners and the government is not looking after them,” she said.

“Such facilities must be shut down. We are sitting on a time-bomb.” she added.

Khaya Sodidi, secretary of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa) in the Eastern Cape, one of the Covid-19 provincial hotspots, said there were “a number of clinics” that had to be temporarily closed down recently after staff members tested positive for coronavirus. “This happened in other areas as well,” he said.

Health-care sector regulator, the Office of Health Standards Compliance (OHSC), said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon they were concerned about instances where the provision of services, quality and safety “in health establishments is compromised”.

“The quality of health services and safety of all the users of health services remains paramount even during these trying times,” the regulator said.

“The OHSC further wishes to emphasise that the protection of health workers and all personnel through adequate availability and provision of personal protective equipment must be a priority.”

Management teams in all health establishments have a responsibility to ensure the protection of health-care workers, it said.

National health department spokesperson Popo Maja told Business Day on Tuesday evening: “The behaviour of a viral pandemic cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. [The] national government is supporting the efforts of [the Western Cape] government.”

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za