Mission impossible: maintaining social distance in frontline health care

District nurse with limited PPE. Photo Molly Jones
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While restrictions are easing across Victoria, health care workers are still dealing with the risk and uncertainty of coronavirus. Molly Jones talks to front line workers on the reality of working in a high-risk environment.

Front line health care workers such as district nurses say it remains impossible to do their work while maintaining proper social distancing.

Many struggled through worst of the pandemic with a lack of protective equipment, including masks, hand sanitisers and even alcohol wipes.

District nurse Jill Sanders*, 63, said she had been going into the houses of some of Australia’s most vulnerable people ill-prepared.  

She said it was almost impossible to stick to the 1.5m distance rule with her clients.

“How do you change a catheter or tend to wounds while keeping your distance in somebody’s home? It just doesn’t work,” she said.

“We have a strict protocol to follow with clients before each visit but there is always that lingering feeling of the unknown.

“How do I really know they’re doing the right thing by isolating and staying home? And we can’t keep our distance and we’re going into their house with no protective gear.”

Ms Sanders said she felt a lack of support from her employer but at the end of the day her clients depended on her arriving to their house every day to care for them.

“It’s all a part of the job though, and clients really depend on us, so it is important to always remember that. We’re doing this for them.”

During the height of the pandemic, there were major shortages in key personal safety equipment.

Photo Molly Jones

“We were rationed with our hand sanitiser and hadn’t been supplied more than two face masks which are only good for half an hour,” Ms Sanders said.

She was nervous that she could potentially carry the virus unknowingly and pass it on to a client.

“I see up to 10 clients a day which is 50 per week that I could infect without knowing it,” she said.

“But I really feel like [my employers] don’t give a rats about us on the road every day. They want us to go into people’s home and that’s okay if they aren’t showing any symptoms of the virus, but if they are, where is our equipment?”

Joanne Smith*, 58, is a senior nurse at Kyabram Hospital where they treated several cases of coronavirus. 

“I was surprised when the news broke, we all feel a sense of apprehension and vulnerability working on the frontline,” Ms Smith said. 

Ms Smith said all the cases within her workplace  had shown no symptoms of the virus, which had spread a sense of uncertainty among hospital workers.

“Because they all showed no symptoms it is highly likely if it went around the hospital others also wouldn’t show symptoms. I could have it right now and not even know it,” she said.

Ms Smith said everybody remained extra vigilant.

“More than ever we are washing hands, sanitising, have learned to self-distance and are utilising gown and masks,” she said.

However, the unlimited supply of personal protection gear isn’t available to all health care workers despite the risk without it.

* Not their real names