Masking healthcarer risks

322 new cases in Victoria today is tragic, but there is some relief in the assessment by Victoria’s Chief Health Officer that the numbers of new cases now appear to be stabilising and trending downwards. Still very worrying however, are the 3,000 positive diagnoses of Covid-19 in Victoria that are of unknown origin and the infection rate of healthcare workers.

Dr Roger Yazbek, Democrats Health Campaigner

More than 1,100 healthcare workers have been infected by this contagious virus to date – 11% of all active cases.

We surely cannot afford to lose so many health workers from the workforce or to put them in the line of fire without the utmost level of protection based on best-available evidence.

A recent article published in The Medical Journal of Australia is critical of current PPE use and standards saying they are inconsistent and not protective against airborne transmission. While surgical masks offer some protection, they were never designed to protect health care workers against viruses that can be transmitted via breath aerosols like the current coronavirus. N95 respirator masks have been shown to offer significantly better protection (96%) than surgical masks (67%).

The article rightly states

Supply shortage is no reason to recommend substandard protection for health workers.

It also calls for national and transparent reporting of all health care worker infections, data on the category of healthcare worker, where the infection was acquired, severity of disease, hospitalisation, intensive care and death numbers.

We acknowledge that the COVID crisis has required an enormous effort by all State and Federal leaders and don’t want to be critical, but there must be accountability when it comes to the safety of our frontline health care workers. It is simply not good enough for Government to say that this pandemic took us by surprise.

A review undertaken by the Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing following the 2009 H1N1 Pandemic perplexingly states:

Although P2 (N95) masks are an important piece of equipment for the protection of healthcare workers from respiratory infections, they require training to ensure correct use and fit. Their utility in a national stockpile should be reconsidered.

Nonetheless, the review clearly highlights the importance of constantly reviewing our National Medical Stockpile to ensure adequate supplies in the event of a pandemic. Whilst we have now ramped up local manufacturing to ensure adequate supplies of masks and other PPE, we should not have been at the stage where this was ever in question.

While the pandemic has been a rapidly evolving situation, and advice on mask-wearing has necessarily changed as our understanding of the virus grows, it does not excuse the initial public advice from Government that was driven primarily by their ill-preparedness rather than the best available evidence.

We know that face coverings, including homemade masks, can offer some protection, but we should never expect our frontline health workers to settle for makeshift masks and PPE due to Government negligence.  

In the fight against this insidious virus, we must ensure that ALL our doctors, nurses, scientists and essential workers are provided the resources and protective equipment that they need to help them protect us. 

Government must listen to and take the advice of experts, and ensure the supply of the necessary PPE to protect all Australian’s at the front line.  

Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

Share this: