by Okeri Ngutjinazo
STAFF of a state ambulance service claim they had to return to work after a driver tested positive for Covid-19 last Saturday.
Current regulations dictate that when an individual is suspected or confirmed to have the coronavirus, the person should be isolated and the area concerned should be closed off for disinfection for 24 hours.
But on 9 August, after the ambulance driver tested positive, his colleagues were tested and continued their duties, they say.
Of these colleagues, seven received their test results on Thursday, which was positive for Covid-19.
Only then were they isolated, they say, although the ministry refutes this.
The Ministry of Health and Social Services has also been blasted for allegedly only disinfecting the ambulance station and vehicles five days after the driver tested positive.
He is said to have been in contact with a relative who tested positive for Covid-19.
In a leaked WhatsApp message, a staff supervisor tells employees they were supposed to receive a pump or container to disinfect the ambulances.
This request was reportedly meant to be authorised by the infectious control officer at Windhoek Central Hospital.
However, new World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines stipulate fumigating or ‘misting’ increases the risk of virus transmission and is therefore not recommended.
“A study has shown that spraying as a primary disinfection strategy is ineffective in removing contaminants outside of direct spray zones.
Moreover, spraying disinfectants can result in risks to the eyes, respiratory or skin irritation and the resulting health effects,” a WHO report states.
The supervisor recommended that ambulances be cleaned with biocide, a strong chemical substance, instead.
One of the ambulance driver’s colleagues who tested positive says he was part of the group who were still going to work after the driver tested positive.
There are normally nine workers per shift, responding to emergency calls, he says, and adds that proper disinfectants are not provided to clean the ambulance with.
“After a call we usually use the spray to wipe off the area, but nothing else. The workplace is also not safe as regulations are not adhered to,” the worker says.
He says he has been in contact with nearly 70 patients while on duty before his results were released.
Staff members are now demanding answers to why it took the ministry so long to take action, and why those in contact with the driver were not immediately quarantined.
“They do not practise what they preach. The ambulance station was not closed off and disinfected within 24 hours. The colleague’s results were out on Saturday afternoon, but no potential contacts were isolated, nor did cleaning and disinfection take place,” they say.
One staff member says only a few of the driver’s contacts were tested over the weekend.
“The driver was in contact with most of the employees at the station, but fewer than 10 people were tested. There are no infection control prevention measures in place here, and if there are, none of us are aware of it,” the worker says.
He says apart from ambulances not being cleaned sufficiently, they are also experiencing a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) while on duty.
Executive director of health and social services Ben Nangombe says the driver in question had not been at work since he was identified as a contact on 2 August. His results came out on 8 August.
Nangombe says the driver was at home while awaiting his results, and was thereafter isolated.
“It was established that the case in question was a contact of a confirmed case in the community, and as the protocol requires contact tracing was done to establish the extent of further infections. All direct contacts of the driver, including 13 co-workers, were taken to Robert Mugabe Clinic for swabbing and were placed in quarantine,” he says.
Regarding the disinfection of the ambulance station, Nangombe says all ambulances are disinfected with a solution that contains an active chemical molecule every morning before the next shift uses it.
For this reason the ambulance had already been disinfected, he says.
The ministry says they have adopted the WHO Standard Operating Procedures when it comes to decontamination.
“We practise a cleaning system that involves cleaning surfaces with water, soap (or a neutral detergent) to remove and reduce dirt, debris and other organic matter such as blood, secretions and excretions, but since this does not kill micro-organisms, we use chemical disinfectant, such as a chlorine or alcohol-based solution that kills the remaining micro-organisms,” he says.
Nangombe says all health facilities have enough PPE and order more when necessary.
This includes ambulance stations where the emergency care practitioners are stationed, he says.
“The unfortunate part is that even with all protective gear available in a work setting, health workers still have a life beyond their work environment and are exposed to infection. We are strengthening the use of PPE and are discouraging health workers to congregate in one area – especially during their lunch breaks,” he says.
Nangombe says the same Covid-19 preventative measures applicable to the public apply to healthcare workers.