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Latrobe Regional Hospital staff injured, union says resources stretched by COVID-19 exposure


ABC News, 29 September 2021

Unions have questioned duress response times, staffing, and alleged pressure to return to work after three staff at the Latrobe Regional Hospital's aged mental health unit were injured by a violent patient on Monday.

It comes after the hospital was identified as a COVID-19 exposure site last week, sending 10 staff into isolation and leading to the separation of staff who work in its Flynn and Macalister units.

The Gippsland organiser of the Health and Community Services Union, Patrick Faulkner, said this measure worsened the severity of Monday's attack.

"It looks like there was a bit of a delay in the response to the duress call from the staff while this consumer was showing signs of aggression," he said.

"Because there's been a separation of the staff between the Flynn unit and Macalister unit it may have increased the delay to getting security to respond."

The union says two of the staff were taken to the emergency department of the hospital where they were treated for concussion and bruising.

In a statement, LRH chief executive Don McRae said management strongly encouraged workers to "identify and report episodes of occupational violence".

"LRH's policy is to provide and maintain a safe and healthy workplace through the minimisation and prevention of occupational violence and aggression," he said.

Union questions slow notification

In the first statement about the exposure case on Monday, a Gippsland Region Public Health Unit spokesperson said deep cleaning of affected parts of the hospital had taken place.

"This specific exposure site may not be published on the Department of Health website because it is low risk, members of the public were not affected, and the hospital has sufficient record keeping and contact tracing measures in place," the spokesperson said.

"All services are continuing as usual and there is no ongoing impact to patients or the limited number of visitors to the hospital."

The case is not linked to a wider outbreak of COVID-19 in the Latrobe Valley.

In a leaked internal memo to a department manager on Saturday, seen by the ABC, Mr McCrae played down the risk to the public.

"As the situation is currently under control with little to no public impact we ask that you please keep this matter confidential at this time," he wrote.

Mr Faulkner has questioned the lack of information about the risk to workers.

"It seems like there's a complete lack of transparency and communication from management about what's actually going on," he said.

He also said the lack of detail was a concern for trust in public health messaging.

"What we've learned through the entire pandemic is that open communication and transparency has been key," he said.

"Everyone has worked pretty hard. I think they deserve open and honest communication about what's going on."

Back at work after testing

While hospital chair Don McRae said 10 staff were in isolation, Mr Faulkner said there may be more who came into direct contact with the infected person.

"Ten seems like quite a small number compared to some of the other incidents in medical health units across the state," Mr Faulkner said.

But the hospital head said the community had been kept safe by the measures.

"The hospital is confident the processes followed and precautionary measures taken so far have mitigated the risk of widespread exposure, particularly to patients and the community," Mr McRae said.

The union also alleged some staff had felt pressured to return to work after getting a negative test, rather than isolating.

"There are people who were potentially in direct contact with this [COVID-positive] person who are not furloughed and feeling pressured or threatened to attend work," Mr Faulkner said.

The hospital did not respond when asked about the allegation.

It is the latest in a long line of concerns about the workplace safety in the mental health workforce at the hospital.