‘State of emergency’ declared for Bay of Plenty hospitals

A nurse says a contagious respiratory virus has “exacerbated” problems of understaffing and workplace fatigue at Tauranga Hospital and was contributing to more nurses falling ill this winter.

This comes as the Bay of Plenty District Health Board is understood to have informed the nurses union of a “state of emergency” across both Tauranga and Whakatāne hospitals earlier this week.

The nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekendthe state of emergency had not created “sudden change” for nursing staff.

She said problems such as short-staffing and working overtime had been gradually “ramping up” and were heightened by the circulation of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“RSV has basically brought to head a problem that was already there and has just exacerbated it,” she said.

She believed fatigue was contributing to more nursing staff calling in sick.

“We have seen higher patient input through the hospital throughout the year. We have staffing shortages as well.

“It is a regular occurrence for staff to pick up extra shifts, to work overtime, to come in early as a way of managing the high patient numbers.

“And staff are just becoming fatigued and sick. Staff are overtired and overworked and it is hard to keep sustaining that.”

Some nurses were now less willing to pick up additional shifts due to this ongoing fatigue, she said.

“Goodwill is running out because staff can’t see an end to it. They can’t see how it is getting better. It is impacting on their families and their personal health now and they are just not as willing to pick up [extra] shifts.

”It is in the back of your mind because you know staff are probably struggling.

“You feel like you are letting each other down if you don’t offer to help. But on the other side you know in the long term then you can end up sick as well.”

The nurse had noticed increased support from hospital leadership staff since the emergency notice had been declared which was “appreciated”.

“We have leadership coming out on to the floors to see how we are doing. That level of interest and help was really appreciated, but what staff are wanting is a more sustained approach on how to manage the fatigue amongst nurses.”

The Bay of Plenty District Health Board was approached for a response to the nurse’s comments.

New Zealand Nurses Organisation organiser Veronica Luca told the Bay of Plenty Times the health board notified the union of the state of emergency at Tauranga and Whakatāne hospitals on Monday.

Luca said this status only formalised the nursing crisis that union members had been “shouting from the roof tops about for far too long”.

“The critical nursing shortage in New Zealand appears to now be nearing a point of no return.Something needs to be done with great urgency to recruit and retain our existing workforce who are leaving from burnout and greener pastures,” she said.

In response to Luca’s comments, BOPDHB chief executive Pete Chandler said the board understood the pressure on nurses in the Bay of Plenty and the rest of New Zealand.

“We are in a time of unprecedented demand for healthcare services, and at Tauranga and Whakatāne hospitals we are doing everything we can to balance our workload and workforce.

“We sincerely appreciate the many extra hours our nurses have been giving, and we will continue to do everything we can to provide both the resources needed and the support that our nursing teams deserve,” he said.

BOPDHB integrated operations centre manager Michelle Cullinane said, in response to questions about the state of emergency, that it had set up a “co-ordinated incident management structure” on Monday to “proactively manage risk and optimise use of resource for acute demand”.

But Cullinane said the BOPDHB was starting to see fewer RSV cases in children presenting to the hospital.

“From Monday this week we have seen 14 adults and 15 children while for the same time period last week (Monday-Thursday) we saw 12 adults and 31 children.

“As per our community, we always expect to see slightly higher levels of sickness during winter periods. We try to plan accordingly.”

BestStart childcare centres chief executive Fiona Hughes said there has been a noted increase in sick leave among teachers and children in their Tauranga and Rotorua centres.

This was predominantly children with RSV, colds and cases of hand, foot and mouth, she said. Teachers were calling in sick with general coughs and colds.

“We have implemented our illness policy with parents who have been very supportive in keeping children at home when they are unwell,” she said.

“We have a dedicated reliever pool who have been able to cover illnesses and with child numbers down covering staff absences has been made easier.”

Meanwhile, Mount Medical Centre GP Tony Farrell said he was seeing mild upper respiratory infections in adults, and “quite a few” young children with RSV.

He said most RSV cases were mild, however, occasionally children would need support in hospital.

“We do see this every year, but there may be more this year as many kids missed the infection last year with lockdown.”

All potentially infectious patients were seen in a “special cabin” to prevent the spread of viruses in the practice, but despite this some staff had gotten colds and were required to isolate, he said.

Trustpower people and culture general manager Sara Broadhurst said the company usually saw an increase in the use of sick leave during the colder months and this year was no different to others.

“We are just seeing the normal seasonal illnesses we expect around this time. Trustpower encourages people to take the time they need to recover and limit the spread of illness.”

Trustpower had around 600 staff based in Tauranga. Sick staff who felt well enough to work were encouraged to work from home, she said.

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