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Sydney hospitals on ‘red alert’ as more than 600 health workers in isolation over case contact

Hundreds of health workers have been forced to isolate after being deemed close contacts of an unvaccinated student nurse who worked across two Sydney hospitals while infectious with Covid-19, wreaking havoc on staffing levels.

As hospitals in greater Sydney were placed on ‘red alert’ due to the latest Covid outbreak, restrictions on visitors triggered alarm among expectant mothers.

Guardian Australia understands that more than 600 health professionals across two hospitals have been deemed close contacts.

More than 500 staff at Royal North Shore hospital, and more than 120 staff at Fairfield hospital, are now isolating and unable to work after being identified as a close contact of the 24-year-old student nurse who worked from 24-28 June across the two hospitals while infectious.

Nurses, administration staff and other healthcare workers are among the isolating workers.

The situation is so severe at Royal North Shore hospital, where five wards are affected, that health authorities are understood to be trying to move nursing staff from nearby hospitals to help fill the shortfall in services.

The number of isolating close contacts related to the student nurse has swelled since Wednesday, when about 100 initial staff and patients were sent into isolation after a positive result being returned late on Tuesday.

Brett Holmes, general secretary of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, said the isolation orders have put “a large burden” on an “already strained” workforce.

“Taking 500 staff out of Royal North Shore has a massive impact on the workloads of our members,” the union chief said.

“Our health system was already at extraordinary high activity, and there was minimum staffing available because casual staff who might’ve backfilled absences are being absorbed at vaccination and testing centres.

“Clearly the hospital has done the sensible thing and stopped all but emergency surgery, and has diverted patients to other facilities where possible, but nurses were already strained and have experienced for some time shortages in their normal working day.

“The necessary steps that have been taken [isolation orders] certainly leave a large burden on the staff,” Holmes said.

In a statement, NSW Health confirmed that there is “restricted movement on five wards” at Royal North Shore – renal vascular, neurology, cardiology, a general medical ward and a surgical ward.

“These wards are not accepting any new patients and are closed to visitors. All staff working in these wards are wearing an enhanced level of personal protective equipment,” the statement said.

For hospitals on red alert, visitors are only permitted by exception and must meet certain conditions, including seeking medical treatment, obtaining medical supplies, fulfilling carers’ responsibilities, end of life visits and attending an appointment to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

The new rules have created confusion about whether women giving birth can be accompanied by a support person.

Western Sydney Health district had set up an online exemption form, and used its social media channels to warn that partners of women giving birth are not allowed to enter hospitals in the district without gaining an exemption.

But a spokeswoman said in a statement to the Guardian late on Monday evening: “Arrangements are in place to allow for a visitor in very limited circumstances including for example for women in labour and in the emergency department, however any visitors will be screened on arrival.”

The strict controls in western Sydney follow the listing of a string of exposure sites across the area, including the SummitCare Baulkham Hills aged care facility outbreak. Infected residents have been transferred to Westmead hospital, which is inside the health district.

Western Sydney Health’s earlier post triggered hundreds of comments in response.

“You are setting birthing mothers up for birth trauma, and postnatal depression,” one user wrote.

Another user said: “You can’t ask a mother to birth alone leaving the father/partner of that child to stay home and watch on bloody zoom. What a joke.”

Source: The Guardian