Northern Ireland news

Senior health official warns carers' lack of PPE 'like sending firefighters into blaze without equipment'

Donna Penrose and her daughter Melissa McCullough

A SENIOR Northern Ireland health official, whose mother died after a Covid-19 outbreak in her US nursing home, has warned leaving care workers without personal protective equipment (PPE) is like 'sending soldiers to battlefield without a weapon and ammunition'.

Melissa McCullough's 73-year-old mother Donna Penrose had been battling a "terminal and rare neurological disease" for four years when she was struck down with a 38.1C fever and a "newly-developed cough".

She was tested on Thursday April 2 for coronavirus after it emerged there had been an outbreak in her New Jersey nursing home, which had already been "shut down to all visitors" for more than three weeks.

Dr McCullough said the family believed "she was in the safest place she could be".

"Little did we know that... (the staff) were not fully protected up to this point.

Platform: We must treat our health and social care workers with dignity and respect

"In locking down the nursing home, they may have succeeded in protecting family and friends who could no longer visit, but left within its walls an incubator for Covid-19.

"Sadly my beautiful mom passed away on Tuesday evening in her nursing home surrounded by no one."

The "heartbroken" non-executive director of Northern Ireland's Health and Social Care Board blames US president Donald Trump's "woefully inadequate (and in my view criminal) handling of the pandemic" for a "huge role" in her death and the 18,000 others who also lost their lives.

Read More: Government advice on teachers not needing PPE 'unhelpful'

"As a clinical ethicist, I am deeply troubled," she said, warning underlying conditions do not "make their death more acceptable... (when) but for the virus, the vast majority would still be alive today".

Donna Penrose with her daughters Tara Vogdes and Melissa McCullough in Wildwood, New Jersey

"Adding to my worry was the increasing accounts by staff and vulnerable residents in care and nursing homes in so many countries, including here in Northern Ireland, who have not been afforded the appropriate personal protective equipment.

"We wouldn't expect a fire fighter to fight a blaze without the proper protective equipment or a soldier to hit the battlefield without a weapon and ammunition. Are health and social care providers at this time, in these circumstances, really any different?"

Read More: Personal protective equipment supply line 'vital' as doctors highlight shortages

Family doctors have become the latest health workers to signal alarm at the lack of PPE, "particularly masks and aprons", saying they may withdraw services.

Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann insists "protection and health and safety of our front line staff is an absolute priority".

Dr McCullough said domiciliary care workers, social workers, and care home staff are "our most precious resource" and "deserve no less protection than front line hospital staff".

"Care workers in particular, amongst the lowest paid in the health and social care sector here, visit and care for society’s most vulnerable people.

"They leave their own families so they can take care of ours. They go into numerous homes daily with multiple opportunities to spread the virus, which is especially risky if they are not provided with the appropriate protection."

She said families have asked loved one's carers to stop coming, as they didn't have protective gear.

"We must treat our health and social care workers with the dignity and respect they deserve and make the protection of them - all of them equally, a priority."

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