Nurses volunteer for West’s pandemic battle
Wearing PPE is uncomfortable at the best of times. The level of discomfort goes up a notch when you’re outdoors in hot weather and flies are crawling under your face shield.
Bush flies were among the challenges faced by Sydney nurse Lyn Whitlam when she joined the fight against COVID-19 in the outback town of Broken Hill.
Lyn, the branch Secretary and delegate at Ramsay Health Care’s North Shore Private Hospital, flew to the state’s Far West in response to an urgent call for volunteers.
“I wanted to do my bit to assist a very remote area of NSW that was struggling to deal with the pandemic,” she said.
Lyn was one of five nurses in the first Ramsay team to go to Broken Hill. She did an online COVID-19 vaccination course before starting her 10-day stint in late August.
She was seconded to the public health system and divided her time between an indoor vaccination centre and a drive-through testing clinic on Broken Hill Memorial Oval.
“At the testing clinic, I had my Ramsay uniform on with a thin blue apron, N95 respirator, face shield and gloves,” she said.
“It was hot, despite it being winter, and I expected someone to swallow a fly every time I asked them to open their mouth wide to obtain the throat swab.”
Not enough PPE
The out-of-town nurses helped move Broken Hill Hospital’s small immunisation clinic into the town’s civic centre, which enabled an expansion of the vaccination program.
The Sydney outbreak had been spreading for two months, yet Broken Hill could not supply enough PPE for the vaccination team, which typically comprised two nurses drawing up the vaccine, four vaccinating, two in the observation area, and a team leader.
“We had to ask Ramsay to send extra PPE, including N95 masks and face shields,” Lyn said.
“There were not enough computers and only one printer, and the internet was very poor.”
At the drive-through testing clinic, data collection was slow and error-prone due to a lack of computers and QR codes.
“The admin staff had to write down all the information – names, addresses, birth dates, Medicare numbers, etc. – then transfer it onto pathology forms, then hand the forms to me or another RN to do the tests. We would get the visitor to check the details and about 10 per cent of forms had incorrect information.
“All tests had to be sent back to Sydney for pathology and at one stage, we were told it was taking five days to get results back.”
During the weekend Lyn spent at the testing clinic it received only 148 visitors including locals, truck drivers and other motorists passing through town.
Serious communication issues
She says this partly reflects in-adequate COVID-19-related planning and publicity for the outback.
“There is a serious communication issue out west and people don’t have easy access to information,” Lyn said.
“A lot of locals are in a lower socio-economic group. They don’t have smart phones – they use flip phones or land lines – and don’t have computers. They can’t make appointments online and they can’t access their vaccination records.
“The local newspaper is now only available online and the town is in lockdown, so meeting places like pubs and clubs are closed.
“The word about testing and vaccination hasn’t been getting out. Very few of the local nurses had received their first dose of vaccine when we were there.”
Lyn has told Ramsay she’s happy to volunteer again at a vaccination or testing centre, including in Broken Hill.
“Hopefully they will move the testing centre indoors for summer, but I’d be taking a fly net just in case.”