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'Exhausted' ICU nurses at St Vincent's say safety concerns they raised months ago have not been addressed

Nurses have expressed frustration over shower and sink facilities, as well as not being prioritised for the Covid-19 vaccine.

Screenshot 2021-01-07 at 15.31.39 ICU nurses in the changing room

NURSES WORKING IN in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at St Vincent’s University Hospital (SVUH) in Dublin have said requests they made over safety concerns during the first wave of pandemic have still not been addressed.

A number of nurses in the hospital’s ICU say they have consistently raised issues about the lack of sink and shower facilities available to them, as well as the small size of their changing room which is about two metres by eight metres.

Some nurses have also expressed frustration and upset that they were not prioritised when initial doses of the Covid-19 vaccine were given to staff members this week.

One nurse told TheJournal.ie that her and her colleagues’ concerns “might seem so petty and minor, but actually they’re massive issues for us”.

The nurse, who has been working at the hospital for over a decade, said 10 or more nurses can be queuing up to use the shower after work, with some having to wait over an hour after their shift has ended.

She said one side of the ICU doesn’t have a sink and the other sink is very small, making it difficult for people to wash their hands properly.

Nurses flagged these issues after the first wave of Covid-19 several months ago, in the hopes they would be addressed prior to a second or third wave of the virus.

However, they say their concerns and suggestions go up the chain of command but are not acted on and they are “fobbed off constantly”.

In relation to the concerns nurses have about shower and sink facilities, a SVUH spokesperson said the hospital’s “aim is to provide our staff with the best possible working conditions – which we review and monitor on an ongoing basis”.

“All staff are encouraged to speak to their line manager if they have any concerns or issues,” they added.

Screenshot 2021-01-07 at 18.21.55 The shower for ICU nurses

Screenshot 2021-01-07 at 18.22.13

Screenshot 2021-01-07 at 18.22.22

“We wanted an escalation plan put in place. We wanted things put in place, anticipating that there was going to be another surge and wave of Covid. We’ve been banging our heads off a wall for the last few months,” one nurse told us.

“During the first ways we used to queue up at the end of the shift and wait for that manky shower. And we were just sick of it.

“One of our sides of the ICU doesn’t even have a sink outside of it, that hasn’t been addressed, you saw the size of the sink that we wash our hands in when we’ve come out of known Covid cases.”

There are 16 beds in the ICU and anywhere between 20 and 40 staff members moving through it on a daily basis, nurses said.

“You’ll have extra teams coming in and out – physios, doctors, everyone – so it’s a constant flow of people,” one nurse told us. 

Nurses in the ICU said they love their jobs but feel “dejected” and “exhausted”, and “deeply concerned” about their working conditions, as well as the vaccine rollout plan in the hospital.

Screenshot 2021-01-07 at 11.57.09 Nurses have said the sink available to them is too small

Screenshot 2021-01-07 at 11.56.48

“We’re trying to be safe, there’s all this talk about being safe and social-distancing and hygiene, and then we are actually working with Covid patients and patients who are so vulnerable and at risk, and these are our conditions,” one nurse said.

“We love what we do when we can work in a safe environment. Our work is such a privilege, but we just want to be safe, we want to be listened to.

“It’s not about ‘we want more money’, we want to have a safe environment to work in. We’re not listened to – communication is really, really poor from the top down.”

The nurses stressed that patient safety is maintained in the ICU, but the same can’t always be said for staff safety.

‘Absolutely outrageous’

Nurses working in ICU have also raised questions about how the Covid-19 vaccine rollout is being handled by the hospital.

The nurses claim the booking system being used by staff is flawed as it seems to operate on a “first-come first-basis” where staff who do not directly deal with patients, such as admin and cooking staff, have received the vaccine before some nurses and other staff who have direct contact with patients, including Covid patients.

When asked about the concerns raised by nurses about vaccination, a spokesperson for SVUH said the first batch of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine arrived at the hospital on Tuesday and vaccinations started at 1pm that afternoon.

“The priority, as per national guidelines, is to provide the vaccine to groups of healthcare workers (identified by their line managers) who are delivering direct patient care. Once identified, staff details are entered into an online booking system and an appointment is generated for them.”

The spokesperson said, by the end of today, at least 1,000 staff members will have received the first dose of the vaccine.

A second delivery of the vaccine arrived yesterday and, by early next week, up to 2,000 staff members are expected to have received the vaccine, they added.

TheJournal.ie understands that management informed ICU staff yesterday that they would all be vaccinated by the weekend after a number of people complained.

Another nurse, who has also been working in the ICU for over 10 years, described the lack of prioritisation of nurses and staff who work directly with patients in the first few days as “absolutely outrageous” and “totally insane”.

“So the whole hospital needs to be vaccinated but they should prioritise the 12 areas that have been picked (by the HSE) and they haven’t been prioritised.

“When one of my colleagues went down [on Wednesday], to see if she could get their vaccination, other staff like catering staff and pharmacists and people like that were being done. They’re not actually dealing directly with patients.”

The nurse said she and her colleagues in the ICU are “all completely exhausted” but that when they heard about the vaccine rollout in the hospital this week, there was a sense of elation.

“When we heard about the vaccine being rolled out, there was such a lift. We all kind of went, ‘Oh my god, this is it’s like our golden ticket’. Even though we know it’s not the end of it, we felt we were getting closer to getting back to normal, to safety, and also a bit of recognition for the work we’ve done as well, being prioritised.”

She said there is “a massive deflation” among nurses in the ICU who are still waiting to be vaccinated.

Everyone’s angry, raging, really, really upset.

“When a couple of our nurses went down [on Wednesday]. They were turned away, they were told that they weren’t on the list, that there were no appointments,” one nurse told us.

“And they came back crying. It’s a really stressful environment – they’re coming out of looking after Covid patients, they’re going down on their 20-minute break, and there’s a queue of clerical and other staff lining up to get vaccinated and they’re being told they can’t, it’s pretty bad.” 

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Third wave

The nurses we spoke to said they are “really stressed” and “quite anxious” by the recent surge in Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations due to the third wave of the virus here.

“Again, we’ve really been hit with it and we know we’re in trouble. We are getting cases of Covid into us every day, we’re pushing non-Covid patients into areas that aren’t a part of our ICU. And that’s just going to explode over the next week or two, we expect,” one nurse said.

She added that there was more of a flow of patients during the first and second waves, but now more patients are being admitted and for longer periods.

More than 1,150 Covid-19 patients are currently in hospitals in Ireland, a new record, with over 100 people admitted in the last 24 hours. 

“We’re all exhausted. We could all foresee that this third wave was going to come, we actually think it’s going to be a lot harder on us.

“We think what was predicted in March is actually going to hit us now,” one nurse said.

She stated that there were some learnings from the first wave of the virus that can help staff plan better this time around. However, she said management needs to listen to frontline staff and not make decisions for them without consulting them.

Despite their concerns, the nurses are trying to stay positive and band together.

One told us they have the “most amazing job” and they are “proud” of the level of care they’ve delivered in difficult circumstances and amid visitor restrictions in recent months.

“We were so proud of ourselves, especially, when you’re that person that’s ringing family and being the direct contact and Skyping families. It really is such a privilege, but we just want to be safe, we want to be listened to.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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