Public health officials raised concerns about staff incorrectly using PPE during outbreaks of infections in nursing homes in the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, new records show.
t one crisis meeting in the North West in April last year, a senior health official said she was unable to give assurances that basic infection controls such as hand hygiene and social distancing were being adhered to in nursing homes.
An official for Sligo-Leitrim was also unable to give assurances that “hand hygiene and doffing of PPE is being carried out properly” in the region and was concerned “that people may be becoming complacent”.
The theme of infection control recurs throughout minutes of HSE crisis meetings held from April to August last year.
The minutes, released to Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd under the Freedom of Information Act, provide a compelling insight into the day-to-day handling of virus outbreaks by public health officials.
The minutes highlight problems caused by false negative test results, as mass testing was rolled out to all staff and residents in April last year.
Minutes from April 20 note that one resident in a care facility in the North East tested negative for Covid-19 in a mass screening for the virus. However, the resident subsequently developed symptoms, was retested, but died the following day.
The original test could not be located by the National Viral Reference Laboratory, according to the minutes.
Confusion over whether the resident was positive or negative caused difficulties for the family, who had already organised an open coffin and a funeral to be attended by more than 20 people, believing their loved one was Covid-19 negative.
But according to the minutes they were informed the Covid-19 status was actually “unknown”.
The minutes also reveal that public health officials warned they would consider closing a Sligo facility that was not following “correct procedure”.
Patients were tested on admission but were placed in five-bedded rooms, the minutes said.
Public health officials said that staff and visitor temperature checks were not being carried out, and this was a “risk to patients, staff and the community”.
The minutes of the strategic outbreak control teams were released to Mr O’Dowd after a year-long battle.
The TD had requested records relating to Drumbear Lodge nursing home in Monaghan, where 22 people died during an outbreak at the facility between April and June last year.
The care facility suffered one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks during the first wave of the pandemic.
A subsequent inspection by the nursing homes regulator Hiqa found it complied with all 13 state regulations under inspection.
The crisis minutes included concerns about Drumbear, when the outbreak was at its height, over “inappropriate storage and use of PPE which presents a risk of infection”.
The minutes noted that staff in all residential care facilities must adhere to the infection prevention and control basics, including correct use of PPE and hand hygiene.
The Health Service Executive initially refused to release the records in full, arguing that to do so was not in the public interest.
Drumbear Lodge nursing home is an unlimited private company and fell outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, it said. It also argued that individuals could be identified.
The Office of the Information Commissioner overruled the HSE.
Mr O’Dowd criticised the HSE for not initially releasing the records and for protecting the interests of private nursing homes.
“Nowhere do they mention in the public interest the fact that this is a pandemic, and that so many people passed away,” he said.
“The real public interest is that 5,280 people have died in Ireland since the start of the pandemic, and more than 2,000 of those are nursing home
Mr O’Dowd has been pressing for a public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19, across all nursing homes.
“We must have a public inquiry, and people are demanding that there is one,” he said.
“The inquiry should include nursing homes where concerns were expressed about the numbers of deaths and those identified by protected disclosures,” he said, adding that nursing homes which managed to avoid widespread
outbreaks of the virus should also be included, so that others can learn from them.
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