Fiji mercy flight: Infected UN staffer transferred in disease capsule, vaccinated crew wore full PPE

The woman at the centre of a Covid mercy dash from Fiji was flown to New Zealand cocooned in a negative pressure capsule with air crew donning full protective wear to safeguard against infection.

New Zealand Air Ambulance Service chief executive Annabel Toogood today gave details of the flight, revealing the extent the crew went to keep themselves safe in the face of a highly contagious virus, before safely handing over the patient on arrival in Auckland.

The woman, a UN staffer in her 60s, is now in Middlemore Hospital’s intensive care unit.

Health officials said she was safely transported by ambulance to the South Auckland hospital, where she remains in a dedicated, secure unit with appropriate isolation and infection prevention and control plans in place.

A request to fly to New Zealand for treatment earlier this week was initially rebuffed by the Ministry of Health before the decision was reversed days later.

Toogood said a highly skilled team of three comprising of an intensive care doctor, a senior flight nurse and ISOPOD specialist paramedic carried out the mission wearing full personal protective equipment throughout.

The also elected to use the IOSPOD capsule, even though it was not mandated to use during Covid patient air transfers.

“The patient was flown in a ISOPOD negative pressure capsule and all crew wore full personal protective equipment throughout all phases of the mission,” said Toogood.

“The Personal Protective Equipment and Infection Prevention and Control procedures used by our team for this transfer exceed those used by hospital-based clinical staff caring for Covid-19 patients and in addition our crew are all fully vaccinated and subject to the most stringent testing procedures.

“The ISOPOD capsule is designed for the transfer of patients with highly contagious infectious diseases and although its use is not mandated for the transfer of Covid-19 patients we elected to use it for this transfer to provide an extra layer of redundancy in our Infection Control procedures.”

The aircraft and equipment used for the flight which touched down in Auckland last night had now undergone stringent cleaning.

It included hard surfaces being doused in a hospital-grade hard-surface disinfectant and sanitiser that has been certified as effective against the virus.

The aircraft had also been “fogged” with Nanocyn which provided for additional disinfection of the entire aircraft interior, she said.

Toogood said the biggest challenge of this flight was not the clinical management of the patient but rather the coordination of multiple agencies across both New Zealand and Fiji to ensure a seamless transfer.

She said the mission was judged a success, with no personal protective equipment or ISOPOD breaches.

Soon after landing people in white suits could be seen on the tarmac while an ambulance was parked next to the plane. A person sitting in the cockpit could be seen wearing full personal protection clothing.

At first, the transfer request was declined by New Zealand health authorities on “clinical grounds” but the Ministry of Health later confirmed the approval followed agreement by metro-Auckland District Health Boards to treat the patient.

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, also a former United Nations Development Programme boss, said that the woman was heading to Middlemore Hospital.

Clark said the woman’s mercy flight had been requested by the UN.

“I have total confidence in Middlemore Hospital and its first class ICU. They have done an outstanding job throughout the pandemic and indeed during all emergencies to which they respond,” Clark said.

“In this case, Counties Manukau and Middlemore have stepped up to respond to a UN request, which will be hugely appreciated by the UN and the patient and her family. NZ is the first port of call for Medevac by the UN in the Pacific and all costs are met in full by it.

“Many people worked together to make this Medevac possible. Particular thanks are due to Counties Manukau DHB and ICU at Middlemore.”

Today the health ministry said requests for medical treatment in New Zealand from overseas jurisdictions, particularly in the Pacific, were common.

“Every request is considered, carefully taking into account factors such as the clinical needs of the patient, whether safe transport can be arranged and the availability of appropriate care in New Zealand,” said the ministry.

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