Young doc juggles beds in second-wave Covid storm

Dr Zane Stenning of Groote Schuur Hospital’s Covid-19 unit.

Dr Zane Stenning, 25, has found himself in the heart of the Covid-19 second-wave storm.

The second-year intern from Green Point works in Groote Schuur Hospital’s Covid-19 unit and faces a daily battle to find beds for his patients.

“I would never have imagined that this is where I would end up working,” he says. “This virus took us all by surprise.”

According to the latest provincial government Covid-19 data, the Western Cape has so far had 242 250 cases and 8 482 deaths. There have been 90 000 new cases in the province since December 10, when Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize announced the arrival of the second wave. Countrywide, there have been more than 34 000 deaths.

Dr Stenning was working in the respiratory medicine unit before being transferred to the Covid-19 unit when the second wave hit. “The hospital wanted a team that was comfortable with respiratory illness to be transferred to the Covid-19 team.

“We have times when we feel understaffed. We are working long hours. As part of a Covid-19 high-care team, we are dealing with very sick patients, and it places a stress on the whole team.”

They can work 15 to 20 days continuously without having a proper break, he says, and they still need to give emotional support to the patients in the Covid-19 ward.

Dr Stenning says there is currently no evidence to suggest the new Covid-19 variant is a more severe strain, although there is consensus it is more transmissible. Also, it’s unclear at this stage, he says, how effective a vaccine will be against the new strain as that’s something that will likely only become apparent during the vaccine rollout.

Dr Stenning says the second wave has placed pressure on available beds and he and the rest of his team have become “bed managers”.

“Basically when a patient comes to the hospital who is Covid-19 positive and they are very severe, they will go to one of the Covid-19 high-care wards,” he says. “Once they become stable, after being supplied oxygen, they will go to the Covid-19 medicine ward, and once they are satisfied, the patient would either get sent home, or to a facility for self isolation.”

However, he adds, the very sick patients can sometimes stay in the high-care wards for up to two months. During this second wave, he says, his team is seeing 60 to 70 new Covid-19 patients a day.

The government’s decision to take the country back to level-3 lockdown and ban alcohol sales again before New Year’s Eve brought relief for health-care workers because it cut alcohol-related trauma cases, he says.

“It has helped take pressure off us, all across the hospital, which has given us time to focus on our really sick patients.”

Groote Schuur spokesman Alaric Jacobs says that while staff at the hospital are under pressure they are all doing all they can to help patients.

“We appreciate the hard work done by the staff and we will continue providing excellent care to all our patients.”

The hospital is still appealing to the public to continue wearing their masks and practise physical distancing.