We're not getting masks, gloves because of PPE confusion, say disability support workers

The Government could step in to provide health and community care workers directly with protective gear, as concerns remain over access to items like masks and gloves.

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District health boards are being accused of withholding protective gear, and some say the rules need to change before more vulnerable Kiwis are put at risk. Source: 1 NEWS

DHBs are being accused of holding it back from community carers, and some say the rules need to change before more vulnerable Kiwis are put at risk.

Alison Riseborough has muscular dystrophy which means she's extra susceptible to Covid-19, and she needs close contact help with things like eating and dressing.

But after the lockdown began, she became anxious about a stream of care workers coming into her home without masks.

“I usually have eight or nine different support workers each week… pretty much no-one had any masks.

"I need help with a lot of things during the day, showering, feeding, I need people to hold up my drinks, you can't do that from two metres away, you need to be in quite close contact.

“I've had associates with muscular dystrophy who have died from influenza so it's not unheard of, this is a real fear,” she said.

Under the Ministry of Health’s guidelines, community carers are only required to wear masks and gloves when they're working with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 patients.

Otherwise they don't have to, even if their clients are elderly, disabled or have low immunity.

Ms Riseborough says that needs to change.

“We all know you can be asymptomatic for days, it literally doesn't make sense,” she said.

The Government has repeatedly said that there is plenty of PPE, and that people who need it should have access to it, but advocates say that message isn’t getting through, and DHBs are withholding protective gear like masks and gloves, in favour of sticking to the guidelines.

NZ Disability Support Network chief executive Dr Garth Bennie says the supply of PPE has been “extremely variable”, despite a fresh shipment of more than 40 million masks announced earlier this month.

“It’s clear some DHBs are still operating on the instructions that are on the website, not the director’s general’s instructions a couple of weeks ago,” he said.

“We are still having providers running into DHB contacts saying it’s not their job to supply the community sector and unless there are people who are symptomatic, it’s not warranted.”

The Capital and Coast DHB says it's providing community workers with more protective gear than it’s required to, but that it's not reasonable to supply carers with all the gear they might want.

“We are supplying in excess of the clinical guidelines so that our community workers can feel safer when provide close contact cares.

"This does not mean we are providing people with everything they want, as this is not reasonable use of the stocks available,” Strategy, Planning & Performance director Rachel Haggerty said.

“This pandemic requires us to be positioned to supply PPE for the long term.”

Meanwhile the Government is suggesting it could take the responsibility for sharing the equipment out of DHB’s hands.

“We have assurances from (DHBs) about how they're distributing in their regions and if that’s not working in the coming days we'll rip it up and do it nationally,” Dr Bloomfield said.

Dr Bennie says the approach to the delivery of PPE has been “chaotic” and “a dog’s breakfast”.

“I don't think DHBs have any idea of the scale of people in the sector, we've got providers who employ literally hundreds of support workers who've been given 50 masks and 50 gloves, that’s not going to last very long.

"It doesn't fill everyone with confidence that the supply chain is working, or that the need is understood.”

When asked why the guidelines couldn’t simply be strengthened to see masks and gloves become a requirement when working with vulnerable clients, Dr Bloomfield said PPE is just “one part of the picture”.

“We see even when it’s used in situations where staff are used to using it and they are trained in using it, it’s not fail-safe. It’s not simply about access to PPE, its ensuring they have access for when it is needed, and the guidance is clear about that, also that they know how to use it safely.”

Ms Riseborough’s been able to find a carer to move in and help her fulltime, and the carer has also moved her 90-year-old mother in too.

She says she’s lucky, but that there are plenty of Kiwis who are still being put at risk by carers with no protection.

“Not everyone's been as fortunate as I am to have someone say, ‘I’ll leave my home for four weeks and come and help you’”.