An urgent meeting was called last week following threats by the community and some community workers to close down the Retreat Community Health Centre (CHC) after two staff tested positive for Covid-19.
The centre’s management met with staff, organisations and ward councillors on Friday May 15 to address their concerns and find a way forward.
Before the meeting a WhatsApp voice note made the rounds on social media allegedly from a staff member who was sobbing while recording the voice note. She sounded distressed and worried about contracting the virus, stating she would die if she was infected because of her age and her illnesses.
She also pleads in the voice note for her family to stay indoors because the virus is a reality.
Henry Moses, who serves on the health committee, said the voice note traumatised the community. “There were talks that the community would shut down the facility. Everything was done according to protocol. Here’s nothing to hide. People must know that they must adhere to regulations.”
Natalie Watlington, communications officer for the Western Cape Health Department’s southern western substructure, confirmed that staff members have tested positive and that there are a number of clinics across the substructure where staff have tested positive.
“The challenge is that there is an assumption that unless the whole clinic closes that we haven’t decontaminated the facilities properly. According to our infection and prevention control protocol for the department either the area must be decontaminated and deep-cleaned or the facility if need be and that would result in a temporary closure. If staff in a certain area of the facility have tested positive then those areas must be deep-cleaned and we have done that.
“We went through the processes to temporarily close the affected area, the screening of all the staff and then based on the screening to ensure that those who are at high risk to be sent home for isolation or self quarantine. Those who remain can then resume duties after the cleaning has been done. That’s the protocol and we can confirm that the proper protocol was followed.”
She said in instances where the facility has a large component of staff who test positive then the facility can either decide to close that area or close the whole facility based on not having enough staff members to resume.
“We have thankfully not had that here at Retreat. We understand the community’s fear and they’re thinking we haven’t done enough by not closing the facility but it’s about the ability to continue functioning. We want to try as far as possible to first ensure that we are able to maintain operations and if that is possible then we continue,” said Ms Watlington.
Facility manager, Sister Susan Meyer, said they make sure staff are safe and have screenings, that they have the personal protective equipment (PPE) and do risk assessments.
“We have to keep the clinic open so that we can deliver the service that is expected of us. There’s a lot of anxiety and fears from the community and staff but awareness needs to be continued. The coronavirus doesn’t choose who it wants to infect. We understand the community’s concerns but we are open to advise as far as we can. We are all in this together and we have to work together to fight this. We are here to support you and we will continue to provide the service that is required from us.”
Community leader Mark Solomons questioned why there appears to be secrecy surrounding the positive cases at the facility and also enquired why a specialised cleaning team was allegedly not sent in to clean the facility.
“There is a feeling in the community that there are things happening and it’s not being shared with the community. This is a very very important facility and we need to protect this facility and the staff. If we find out that information must not be shared we will put a call out that this facility is closed. Other facilities are being shut down and decontaminated with cleaning teams to sanitise the whole facility. Why has Retreat not been closed?”
Ms Watlington said upholding patients’ privacy is very important. “This goes for any treatment, whether you are HIV positive or have TB, we don’t go out and say someone has tested for HIV. We confirm whether numbers are increasing or decreasing we can then confirm that. Nothing is hidden. It’s all about upholding the rights of both patients and staff members at the end of the day.
“ As far as the cleaning teams are concerned, the cleaning staff at the facility has done the decontamination. The protocols that we have followed are aligned with our infection and prevention protocols. Whether it’s an internal team that does it or if it’s an outsourced team, it’s not to say that when our internal team does it that it’s not sufficient cleaning,” she said.
Doctor Angela Desa said the past two weeks have been very difficult for staff because of the positive cases in the community: “We had to completely change how we do things at the facility. With our first positive case everyone was anxious about it and when the two staff members were diagnosed. As management we have been working with staff because of the anxiety and we support them so that they can be effective in the jobs they do.”
She also confirmed the protocol around patient/doctor confidentiality and said information around a patient’s status is not allowed to be shared unless the patient does so themselves.
Sister Lynda Smith from the Midwife Obstetrics Unit (MOU) said she is comfortable with the steps that were taken at the facility. “People are screened when they come into the gate. Staff are equipped with PPE and we take the necessary precautions. We appeal to the community and staff to do what they need to do. Support has also been given to staff to ensure their well-being. The news of the positive cases has affected us all and we are supporting each other,” she said.
During the meeting it was agreed that the department will keep stakeholders up to date with information going forward.
Ward councillors Marita Petersen and Gerry Gordon said communication from the facility would go a long way in keeping the community calm.
The facility has again appealed to patients who need to get medication not to come to the facility.
Ms Meyer said staff will be in contact with the patients who need medication and the medication will be delivered. “This is to ensure that there are not a lot of people at the facility. We want as little people at the facility as possible because this will help with social distancing and keeping the community as well as staff safe. Anyone with enquiries about chronic medication and the deliveries can contact the facility on 021 713 9813.”