12 October 2021
Opinion as featured in the New Zealand Herald
Last week, we were blessed to welcome our new son Charlie into the world.
Charlie was delivered through an elective c-section and we spent four days in Auckland Hospital's maternity ward. Having a baby is a nerve-racking experience. This was all the more frightening as Auckland was battling its latest Covid outbreak.
While Covid really should be treated at a primary healthcare level, hospitals are the frontline in our fight, so we expected cases could have been present.
We weren't expecting to discover a Covid-positive case visited the NICU during our stay. We had initially and briefly stayed in a joint room with another couple who had their child in NICU, bringing home the severity of the situation. I felt a huge sense of trepidation.
But I also have never been more thankful to have made the decision to be vaccinated while I was pregnant.
This not only provided protection for me, but also for Charlie, with growing evidence suggesting newborns can get protection through antibodies transferred through cord blood.
When I wrote about my decision to be vaccinated last month, I received a small but aggressive barrage of hate mail, including a death threat on Instagram. While in the minority, it hit home that a vocal few can drown out the voice of reason.
Too often anti-vaxxers demand the right to a choice but attempt to shut down those who do not agree with it. Apparently, being pregnant and having the vaccination was hugely provocative to some of them.
It is clear to most people that our only pathway out of the current outbreak is to achieve very high rates of vaccination.
But this will take time. That means we need to focus our efforts on containment to protect our most vulnerable and to prevent a major outbreak that could overwhelm our health system. My experience at Auckland Hospital, however, suggests we might fail.
While we were asked Covid screening questions when we arrived, Covid was all but forgotten once we were admitted. My husband was able to walk around freely, mixing with other visitors and patients, some without masks.
Our room contained no information about Covid. There was nothing about the symptoms and what you should do, or who to tell, if you did feel unwell.
We weren't offered testing, despite Auckland Hospital saying it provides the option of Covid test screening for all inpatients.
A health care assistant asked me if I had any Covid symptoms, only once, and did so without explaining what those symptoms were or checking whether my husband had
This isn't meant to be a criticism of Auckland Hospital or the staff. They do a phenomenal job. It is more of a reflection about the current state of our health system. All is not well.
If we fail to contain this outbreak until our vaccination rates reach 90 per cent, our hospital system will be under severe pressure. Pressure I am not confident we can handle.
No one asked what the consequence would be of Covid getting into NICU. The consequence was that parents of other babies in NICU weren't allowed to be with their babies during their most critical hour.
How is this fair on the newborn and the parent? How is it fair to put the rights of anti-vaxxers ahead of our most vulnerable?
As a bare minimum, there should be an expectation for people visiting these vulnerable units to be vaccinated and to have had a Covid test. We must therefore urgently put rapid testing into our hospitals to prevent this happening again.
Covid is a primary healthcare disease and needs to be treated as such. We need to keep it out of our hospitals.
We also need to ensure hospitals are well-equipped to deal with outbreaks and appropriate processes to protect our most vulnerable. Basic information regarding Covid must be provided.
Consideration should be made to providing vaccinations within the hospital infrastructure where there is a captive audience who might otherwise be hard to reach.
We need to make it easier to recruit health resources from overseas. We have far too many barriers preventing skilled staff getting into the country.
And we need to start thinking differently about how we reshape our health workforce over the next decade. Why are our children growing up wanting to be YouTubers and Influencers rather than wanting to save lives and care for their neighbours?
We need to ensure our healthcare workers are paid well and recognised for the huge contribution they make to our country.
We should fully fund anyone who decides to undertake a degree in nursing, as we do with vocational trades training, and we should look at fast-tracking health care assistant courses to provide more support in our hospitals.
It is time to properly fund our hospitals - the most critical infrastructure in our society. We need to value and care for the amazing people who work in them each day.
The failure in the past 18 months to prepare the health system for a large-scale outbreak does not fill me with confidence. Let's hope we don't pay the cost.
• Cecilia Robinson is the founder and co-CEO of health startup Tend.