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COVID-19 was a dominant theme in this year’s 20th South Pacific Nurses Forum (SPNF), which was run virtually for the first time in the forum’s history.

During the forum, held on 11 November, Australian and New Zealand nurses revealed their experiences as frontline workers when the pandemic hit.

NSW mental health nurse Alice Vafo’ou and Victorian-based ICU nurse Lynda Maclean spoke about their experiences navigating the practice environment in Australia; while graduate nurse Teena Black and Auckland Clinical Nursing Director Pauline Fuimaono Sanders shared their experiences of working in New Zealand during this time.

Alice, who works in rehabilitation, described an environment where PPE, including masks and appropriate sanitiser, were not always readily available, with nurses and union representatives having to advocate on behalf of workers as clear lines of responsibility and protocols were built.

“It took three months before we were provided with appropriate and available PPE,” she said.

Lynda, who had just commenced work at the Royal Melbourne Hospital when the pandemic hit, played an essential role in the hospital’s COVID taskforce. She performed in a variety of roles, including helping to organise screening clinics, manage aged care facilities with outbreaks and monitor staff wellbeing.

Lynda said that nurses needed to be “comfortable” with the pandemic’s ambiguity.

“The governance of some of this was not clear, and all of us, the emergency services, the government, the hospitals, we were all finding our way. It’s something none of us has experienced before, and so we were often in situations where you would think, ‘no handbook for this,’” Lynda said.

Lynda, who has also worked as an operating theatre nurse, added that a willingness to collaborate to find solutions to complex problems was vital, as was communication.

“There have been times when communication’s been amazing, and there’s been times when it’s been really poor, and I think when it’s been poor, we’ve seen the outcomes of that, and they’re not… great.”

Teena, a Maori woman with a background in education and Maori performing arts, relocated away from her husband and children as part of her COVID work in regional New Zealand. She described a consultative approach to health that relied on intensive community engagement to meet the specific needs of the area’s Maori population.

While communication, teamwork and up-to-date information were essential factors that ensured success for Teena’s team, she also highlighted the need for robust and localised relationships between health workers and their communities.

“What this experience highlighted for me was the importance of connections and support within our Maori community, as well as the strength and connections between the medical team and other services within the area,” she said.

Auckland Clinical Nursing Director Pauline Fuimaono Sanders

Pauline, who is the Clinical Nurse Director for Northern Managed Facilities in Auckland, is responsible for the nursing staff at 80% of New Zealand’s isolation and quarantine facilities.

Overseeing around 250 staff across the 18 hotel health teams, Pauline also helped set up community testing centres as part of an earlier role during the pandemic.

A registered nurse with 25 years of experience, she said it was crucial that nurses and leaders “keep learning” throughout the pandemic and shift their practices according to what they discover.

“We changed our process many times in the first wave until we found the right kind of flow that was the most efficient and most effective,” Pauline said.

Part of this was identifying communication, teamwork, patience, flexibility and problem solving as critical skills which helped her and her teams navigate the pandemic, she said.

This year’s conference was scheduled to be held in Vanuatu by the Vanuatu Nurses’ Association in October, but was pushed back and moved to a virtual setting due to the issues posed by the international spread of COVID-19.

Formed in 1982, the SPNF also features Fiji, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, East Timor and the Cook Islands among its 15 member nations.

Presentations and recordings from this year’s forum will be shared on the SPNF website at a later date.