By Emma Russell
Seven people have contracted swine flu at Middlemore Hospital in the last week with some staff raising concerns over their bosses’ “relaxed response”.
Four patients and three staff members have presented with the Seasonal Flu (Influenza A) in Tiaho Mai, the hospital’s acute adult mental health inpatient unit.
Despite the Counties Manukau District Health Board chief medical officer Vanessa Thornton saying all “usual infection control precautions” were taken, several staff have contacted the Herald to say this was not the case.
One nurse, who did not want to be named, said staff, who worked in the ward, were told to remove their flu masks as it was not necessary.
“Meanwhile doctors and psychologists were still wearing them. A day later one of the nurses contracted the flu and has now taken it home to her husband and daughter.”
The nurse said the patients had been kept in a five-bedroom ward and family members were signing waivers allowing them to come and go as they please, which meant the flu was potentially going back out into the community.
“Visitors don’t know the precautions they should take and are walking in without gowns or masks and people are coughing openly. Of course it’s going to spread with that happening.”
Thornton denied this saying all visitors and staff were given the standard Personal Protective Equipment (masks and gowns) as appropriate.
“All seven affected people are receiving the appropriate treatment. The staff members are at home on sick leave and, of the four patients, one is now fully recovered and the others are recovering well.”
But staff said there was a lot of confusion around whether the employees sent home would be covered with sick leave.
“Some have been told to stay home while they wait for their swab results but have no idea if it counts as sick leave.
“In the first instance we were told Tamiflu treatment would not be free, now they are saying people who have tested positive for the flu can get it free.”
Thornton said 71 per cent of Counties Manukau staff had been vaccinated for the flu and it was given free to all staff.
“If staff had flu symptoms they were also given Tamiflu treatment.
“Where staff do not have sick leave remaining, they are provided with special leave.”
Thornton said it was likely that the infection was community acquired and spread among others in the ward.
“While the term swine flu may have been used 10 years ago, it is now described as the Seasonal Flu.
“It does not have any serious virulent implications. Individual patients will respond in different ways to the flu, depending on other medical conditions such as weight, diabetes, pregnancy and smoking,” she said.
In addition, staff have also been asked to use standard precautions to prevent influenza and help to limit the spread. This includes:
• Staying home if sick.
• Washing hands thoroughly and frequently.
• Contain coughs and sneezes – cover mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. • Use a tissue or the inner crook of your elbow.
• Seek medical attention from your General Practitioner.
As of the week ending August 19, flu and other respiratory virus activity was still unseasonably low in New Zealand, although activity is continuing to slowly increase, as reported in the Ministry of Health’s NZ Influenza Intelligence Report.
Influenza A is the common flu virus in the community and sentinel hospitals in New Zealand.
“Despite limited flu activity this late in there respiratory virus surveillance season, there is still potential for increases over the next few weeks,” the report said.
Last year was considered a low-activity season for New Zealand, with 50 GP visits for influenza-like illness for every 100,000 people per week.
That compared to the 2013 and 2015, seasons which were moderate seasons with about 80 influenza-like illness cases per 100,000 people per week – and the 2009 influenza pandemic, which saw a peak of more than 250 cases per 100,000 people per week.
In April, Pharmac started funding a new “quadrivalent” seasonal flu vaccine that’s designed to protect against four strains of influenza, including two “A” and two “B” strains.
That came after concerns arose over previous vaccines proving ineffective against a certain strain of Type A flu – AH3N2 – which had been prominent in Australia and in the Northern Hemisphere, but was seen to a lesser extent here last season.