The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has warned that members are exhausted and cannot face the idea of a second wave of Covid-19 with the protections that were in place.

INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha told the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response that it is time for the Health and Safety Authority to be involved to examine the high infection rate among healthcare workers.

She said we must ensure that healthcare workers have the same status as every other worker in the country and if they go to work and become ill, they should have the right to have that examined by the HSA. 

Ms Ní Sheaghdha said the regulation that prevents the HSA from doing that must be changed.

She told the committee that there was no way that an employer in the public or private sector was the only authority that determines they acted in a correct manner.

She was responding to Fianna Fáil's Cormac Devlin, who asked what could be done differently in the event of a second wave.

Staff nurse Siobhan Murphy, who contracted Covid-19 at work and now has severe side effects, told the committee that her team was catapulted into the pandemic. 

She said her experience was over-exposure and burnout due to the challenge that they already faced pre-Covid with under staffing.

Ms Murphy said the exposure of Covid-19 as a nurse was profound and said she has suffered psychological and physical side effects and was still off work.

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Ms Murphy told the committee she tested positive for Covid-19 six weeks after the ward she worked on became a "Covid ward".

She said initially she felt quite angry as she had followed hospital protocol and was competent in the use of Personal Protective Equipment.

She described being "crippled with fatigue" and bed bound with headaches, and she said she had extreme shortness of breath and felt she was suffocating.

She said she was in complete isolation and lost her sense of taste and smell.

Ms Murphy said she went to the emergency department at the hospital where she worked around a week later as she was deteriorating at home. 

Ms Murphy said she was on a heart monitor for six days as she had an increased heart rate. She said her concentration was greatly affected and that recovering in isolation was very challenging, both physically and mentally. 

She said she was unprepared for the psychological impact of contracting and living with Covid-19 and "it has definitely prolonged my road to recovery, but I know I will get there". 

Ms Murphy said she experienced huge anxiety and has ongoing insomnia and still has not recovered to her pre-Covid health.

State urged to secure enough PPE

The Irish Medical Organisation has told the committee that the State should ensure adequate supplies of Personal Protection Equipment by stockpiling reserves to prepare for a possible future surge.

In a submission to politicians, the organisation said Ireland cannot again risk having to compete in a "global scramble" for PPE.

The IMO also said "resilience rosters" are required to cover close contact exclusion and healthcare workers absent due to illness.

Resilience rosters appeared to protect workplaces from outbreaks, given the culture of staff going to work while symptomatic with Covid-19 because of perceived obligations to their colleagues.

SIPTU told the committee that no other sector of employment had suffered the same infection rate as healthcare workers. 

John King, Deputy General Secretary for the Public Service, said the HSE needs to be involved so that all that can be done is being done to protect workers in its employment.

He said as a society we waited for the pandemic to be here before we reacted.

However, he said there was an opportunity now while it has abated to make sure that the policies and procedures that were implemented early on are not repeated. 

SIPTU Honorary Vice President Michele Monahan, who is a radiography manager, said healthcare workers were not nearly at burnout, they are at burnout

She said workers took Covid-19 patients home with them because no family members were allowed in to see them. 

She told the committee that those who did not contract Covid-19 were being hit with fatigue due to double shifts and additional calls and more staff, more equipment and more space is needed.

Uptake of flu vaccine by healthcare workers a challenge, committee hears

Dr Lorraine Doherty, National Clinical Director Health Protection, Health Protection Surveillance Centre said the uptake of flu vaccine by healthcare workers was a worldwide challenge.

She said there were healthcare workers in the past who were reluctant to avail of the flu vaccine.

But she said there was enough vaccine to immunise all healthcare workers and she said they all receive the offer of the vaccine.

She said making sure healthcare workers avail of the vaccine was part of their overall strategy this winter to prevent infection.

Anne Marie Hoey, National Director of Human Resources with the HSE, also said that staff would not normally be paid premiums and overtime if they are on sick leave.

She said the issue was a broader issue for the wider public and civil service.

Ms Hoey said the unions had referred the issue to the Workplace Relations Commission and they are awaiting the outcome.

She said they were not aware that this impacted on staff's decision to attend in the workplace. She said the public health advice was very clear to staff and their responsibility to isolate.

INMO says more staff needed for potential second wave

Anybody who is willing to work in the Irish public health service as a nurse and a midwife, should be "grabbed with both hands and offered a permanent job", the INMO has said.

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime, Ms Ní Sheaghdha said they should not have to be arguing with the HSE that a three-month contract is not good enough.

She said there is a need to increase staffing levels to facilitate nurses and midwives who may be sick or absent from work, ahead of a possible second wave of the virus.

Ms Ní Sheaghdha said both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael acknowledged in their manifestos for Government that an extra 4-5,000 nurses are required.