EXCLUSIVE: Nurses unable to get boosted for three months post Covid are being stood down from work, in some cases unpaid, as they await a medical exemption.
Their absence is leaving an additional gap in a workforce that's already chronically understaffed and overworked.
Carlos Molina is an ICU nurse who has only just returned to work this week, after seven weeks of waiting for the Ministry of Health (MoH) to sign off on his medical exemption. He caught Covid-19 just as his deadline to get boosted loomed.
While he waited, he wasn't paid.
"Where is the humanity, to stood someone down with pay just like that? With basically no notice. I felt unappreciated and kind of rejected. I was feeling like some kind of criminal to society."
Under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Order 2021, nurses practicing in New Zealand must be vaccinated against the virus. They need a booster within 6 months (183 days) of having had their second jab.
However, those who have had a Covid-19 infection are unable to get their vaccines for three months after catching the virus. The MoH has confirmed that these nurses are eligible for an exemption under the mandate, but said they must apply for one.
The MoH website shows an exemption is granted by the Director General of Health (DGH). But those seeking to get the special dispensation must first make an appointment with a doctor, or nurse practitioner. If they are approved at this stage, their application is then sent to the MoH which makes its recommendation to the DGH, who has the final sign off.
But as Molina found that process was neither quick nor easy.
"Luckily for me I had savings," he says. But these savings were money he'd set aside to visit his 86-year-old mother in El Salvador.
"The concern that I might not see my mum again, that's also difficult for me."
District Health Board (DHB) figures show that this month there are 736 nurses and midwives who will need a booster. The DHBs were unable to say how many of these would need an exemption. It promised to work with those who did need one, but said any who did not get them in time would be stood down.
National MP for Waimakariri Matthew Doocey says a number have reached out to him for help as they struggled to get their exemptions processed in time. "They say to me they are doing the right thing...they apply for their application but don't hear back and the DHB is standing them down. I don't think that's right.
"It beggars belief that in the middle of a pandemic we are stepping down our ICU staff, and not only stepping them down we are actually freezing their pay, and all for a bureaucratic bungle."
Another nurse, who did not want to be named, says she had always planned to get her booster too. But around the time she planned to get it in March she tested positive for Covid-19 - meaning she's unable to get her third jab till June.
She says it wasn't until she returned to work that she was told her mandated due date was April 25. She says she sought clarification around what this meant for her, but says she had no further correspondence till she was stood down.
"If the first communication had stipulated; 'We know you are Covid positive. We know you can't get a vaccination for three months. But we need you to get a doctors' exemption'... that could have been done."
She has since applied for an exemption, but has been told this can take ten working days.
"It's been extremely stressful waiting for the DHB responses, waiting for the doctors to get back to me, to hear whether the forms have been filled out right."
And while she's currently on two weeks special leave, her fear is this will run out before her exemption arrives.
"Like most New Zealanders, I have a mortgage. I have bills and I have to put food on the table."
She's also concerned about what her absence means for her fellow colleagues.
"Nursing has been stretched for so many years," she says. "I am a skilled staff member that is experienced, that is part of a team, and that when you are not there it's like you are letting everyone down."