On The Ground

Letting visitors take off masks in wards puts patients at risk

One infected visitor eating or drinking inside a ward - that is all it takes to cause a spread

As the number of Covid-19 cases in the community surged over the past week, at least one public hospital has been lax with regard to visitors to its wards.

About one in four visitors was spending time in the ward without wearing a mask.

Perhaps this happens at all hospitals, but I can only speak of one because that was what I observed on more than one visit to several of its wards over the weekend.

But the reaction of the staff was even more surprising than seeing visitors without masks on.

I asked a ward nurse why visitors were allowed to remove their masks.

She replied that it was because they were eating, but was rather exasperated when I pointed to three people nearby who were clearly not.

She then said the same rules that applied to restaurants extended to hospital wards.

Someone might be eating, then stop eating for some time to chat, then continue eating later. Hence, there is no need for the person to keep wearing and taking off the mask, she said.

This begs the question of why visitors are even allowed to eat in the wards.

Given the Covid-19 pandemic, hospitals had restricted the number of visitors to two per patient.

But letting these visitors spend time without masks on - and some were actually walking around without their masks - defeats the purpose of the restriction.

I noticed a young man had a small bag of potato crisps, and he was occasionally snacking on it. He was in the ward for more than an hour, all the time without a mask on due to that small bag of crisps. He was also moving around the ward, walking to the sink at the other end to wash his hands a couple of times.

Such behaviour puts patients, who are not masked, in danger.

The cluster at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), which has grown to 35, shows how easily the virus can spread between patients in a ward.

I noticed that all the staff in the ward were properly masked and meticulous about hand-sanitising before and after meeting patients.

But there really is not much point in staff going by the book if visitors do not. All it takes is one infected visitor wandering around without a mask for a couple of hours to put all patients in a ward at risk.

In a C class ward with about 40 patients, any transmission can spread quite quickly. The vast majority of patients in public hospitals are in the subsidised B2 and C class wards.

The nurse I had spoken to later said that what was happening in her ward was standard practice which was clearly apparent because I went to several wards and noticed roughly the same number of visitors without masks, or wearing them wrongly, pulled down below their noses or mouths.

But, even if this had been the practice for years, with the number of Covid-19 infections in the community mounting, it is perhaps time to change the rule and to insist that all visitors to a ward remain masked at all times.

If they want to eat or drink, they should leave the ward to do so. There are many food outlets in a hospital and these should be where people go to eat or drink.

More so than shopping malls, workplaces or schools, hospitals should practise the strictest safety measures, as their wards house the most vulnerable in the country.

Already one patient at TTSH has died of Covid-19 as a result of getting infected while being treated for something else.

Hospitals should take all steps necessary to try to ensure that no other patient suffers the same fate.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2021, with the headline 'Letting visitors take off masks in wards puts patients at risk'. Subscribe