Nurse speaks out: ‘Hospital staff are sick of working understaffed’

Damien Davis-Frank works as a nurse in the emergency department at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney and is the Vice-President of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association branch there. He spoke to Solidarity about the impact on hospitals of Sydney’s recent COVID outbreak and why the strain on the health system is not over.

The epicentre of the COVID outbreak was in Western Sydney. Their hospital systems were being overwhelmed as they filled up with patients.

Damien Davis-Frank

As people began to get sick in the special hotels set up to house people that couldn’t isolate, they were divvied out to major city hospitals.

So our ICU at St Vincent’s became overwhelmed and we had makeshift ICUs to house sick COVID patients.

How it should work is, people that come into emergency with COVID should then be admitted and sent up to a COVID ward within four hours. But we were so clogged upstairs that people were sitting in the emergency department with COVID for 12 to 24 hours.

At times that meant that you had to nurse three or four patients with COVID in an open bay, which was scary because you’ve got non-COVID people coming in at the same time. The risk of contamination to other patients but also the risk of infection for staff climbed.

Ambulances coming in with people that had COVID would have to wait because there wasn’t space available.

Patients were sitting in an ambulance for three or four hours waiting to get a bed, and paramedics were sitting with the patient in a confined space, which puts them at risk.

At the height of this last outbreak, it was quite scary.

The one thing that gave a sense of safety to nursing staff was we were all vaccinated, unlike during the first outbreak.

We do still have COVID circulating in the community. And there is the fear that with people out and about that we will get an uptick of cases. That’s happened in Europe, it’s happened in the US.

It felt incredibly busy and overwhelming pre-COVID, because our health system at the moment is understaffed. Our hospital is always driving to close beds so they don’t have to fund staffing. If you have patients that are going to start coming back into hospitals with COVID, the risk is great.

I think we’ve seen how important it is to have a functioning public health system.

The Australian government’s prided itself on how we’ve been able to manage this pandemic. They talk about our fantastic public health system but they don’t actually fund it appropriately and protect the people who make it run.

We’ve lost an incredible amount of staff over the pandemic because they’re just fed up, sick of working back-to-back overtime shifts. They’re sick of working in departments which are understaffed.

We’re being let down by governments in NSW and federally. They’ve battered nurses by cutting pay and subjecting nursing staff to working in situations which are not safe.

Why would people want to continue working in the public health system where they feel like they’re not appreciated and their hard work is not rewarded?

In Victoria, nursing staff received a 3 per cent pay increase because of how hard nursing staff worked to make sure the community was safe. In NSW, we’ve seen a pay cut, with a 0.3 per cent increase, cut from 2.5 per cent. I think nursing staff across NSW feel disrespected.

The NSW nurses’ union is continuing to push for safer staffing ratios. We’re demanding one nurse to four patients on wards. And we’re pushing for a one-to-three ratio in emergency departments.

We saw some amazing actions earlier this year—nurses stopping work, jumping onto the streets and demanding that we are listened to.

These staffing ratios are what’s proved to be safe in Queensland and Victoria. In NSW, we don’t have legislated safe staffing ratios. So you can work in a ward where you can be one nurse looking after seven or eight patients.

The government in NSW is holding off putting them in because they do not want to fund our public health system.

In the Emergency Department we often work short, because of unfilled sick leave, and you’re being expected to manage a patient load outside what is safe.

The government is not listening to what is needed.

Our job is to advocate for the safety of the community and the safety of patients.

We’re being expected to care for unsafe levels of patients and we’re going to continue to get onto the streets and say that we demand better. Our communities demand better, and our health system demands better.

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