Public Health Nurses and Midwives praised for being 'adaptable and flexible' during Covid

COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to the interim Director of Public Health Nurse Services West Cork, Joanna McCarthy, whose team of 52 public health nurses serve a population of 60,000 across the region
Public Health Nurses and Midwives praised for being 'adaptable and flexible' during Covid

Joanna McCarthy, the interim director of public health nurse (PHN) services in West Cork.

JOANNA McCarthy, the interim director of public health nurse (PHN) services in West Cork, says that her staff of 52 public health nurses and midwives have been adaptable and flexible throughout the pandemic.

Serving 60,000 people in West Cork, from Beara right over to the Macroom border, the service is for people “from the cradle to the grave”.

It includes vital neonatal blood spot screenings on the fourth day of an infant’s life to detect any medical conditions.

“Because the test is provided by the PHN service in West Cork, it negates the need for the family to go back to the maternity hospital. You can imagine families from the Beara Peninsula possibly having a five hour round trip to the discharge hospital if that service wasn’t provided by us,” she explained.

Joanna’s job involves the governance of risk assessment, education of staff, recruiting and supporting staff and managing the service. The job “is not without its challenges because obviously weekend cover and bank holiday cover is required.”

As well as supporting mothers with new babies, there is the care of the elderly and referral of the elderly to support services that might be available to them such as day care centres and respite services. In addition, nursing service is provided to clients in need of palliative care when they are terminally ill.

“Change is the only constant in our service. Because of the pandemic, staff have called on skills they would have had for acute settings and maybe hadn’t used for a couple of years.

“Prior to the pandemic, staff in the community wouldn’t have used the same amount of PPE (personal protective equipment) as they now use. There was some up-skilling in putting on and taking off the PPE in the correct way.”

Generally speaking, Joanna says staff built on their existing knowledge and skills for the challenges presented by Covid-19.

However, initially, “there was a lot of fear among staff that they would get the virus themselves. They worried about going into clients’ homes who may have had the virus but didn’t know it.”

However, Joanna says that despite the negative publicity surrounding the availability of PPE, in her experience, it was provided in a very timely way.

“It was available and continues to be available as required. I would be very confident in saying that staff and clients were protected from the get go.”

Without exception, Joanna’s staff “have been absolutely outstanding” throughout the pandemic.

“It hit us like a tsunami in March. At a moment’s notice, myself and the other directors of PHN services in Cork and Kerry were getting requests for staff to be redeployed to swabbing centres and to contact and tracing work which is a new phenomenon. 

"While there were elements of fear, there was a willingness among staff to learn and to adapt. They are contributing in a constructive way to the changing care needs of the community.”

The West Cork swabbing centre is in a GAA pavilion in Ballinacarriga, outside Dunmanway. When school nursing services, responsible for general vaccinations for pupils, stopped because of the first lockdown with schools closing, the schools’ PHNs were redeployed to the swabbing centre. Nurses were also redeployed to contact tracing.

“I had my phone on every weekend and that continues. I got a request very early on a Saturday in March asking for staff to be made available for the next day at St Finbarr’s Hospital, to do contact tracing. I phoned some staff members and they were more than willing to go to St Finbarr’s for eight o’clock the next morning.

“There was significant travel involved but they did it without question and they remained at the hospital for a number of weeks, learning what to do in what was a new environment for everyone. All the staff are now back at their bases.”

Joanna now works longer hours: “I have a number of teleconferences on any given day, usually around the changing landscape of Covid and the ongoing need to be redeployed to priority locations. There is subsequent communication with staff about where they are required and rosters have to be adjusted.”

There is a fear among families that a loved one who is terminally ill will not be allowed visitors if they go to hospital. Joanna says that where possible, “it is a privilege to be able to provide nursing care in the patient’s home during that precious time”.

Looking back at a tumultuous year, Joanna is thankful that she and her family have remained healthy. Her father is the carer for her mother in their home near Bantry.

“I continue to be quite supportive to them. For my parents, there is a certain amount of isolation and loneliness in terms of the wider family not being able to visit them.”

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