Shortages of protective equipment and a lack of fitting masks were behind the COVID-19 infections of thousands of Victorian healthcare workers, experts have said.

“Multiple failures” in the planning of PPE for healthcare workers have contributed to the infections, and there is still some way to go until the situation is fixed,” Physician Dr Michelle Ananda-rajah told ABC news this morning.

She said though the situation has improved, she is still hearing reports that the masks are not being fitted properly.

Multiple failures

“When you end up with 3,400 healthcare worker infections, it’s not any one failure. There have been multiple failures at multiple jurisdictional levels,” she said.

Dr Ananda-rajah said guidelines around the use of PPE were “initially… completely wrong” when surgical masks were endorsed. 

Surgical masks are loose fitting, and are not designed to protect against disease that can be transmitted by aerosol means, she said.

But in July, after Victorian healthcare workers began to be struck down with COVID-19, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services changed the guidelines to endorse N95 masks.

But because the masks were only endorsed at this late stage, they had not been stockpiled and there were not sufficient guidelines for fitting of the masks, Dr Ananda-rajah said.

“No one invested in the occupational health and safety of healthcare workers,” she said.

Because healthcare workers have not been consulted on matters relating to their safety, they are feeling “unheard” and “undervalued” and that their suggestions are not being taken into account, Dr Ananda-rajah said.

Those with “skin in the game” are not being consulted or listened to, she said.

Policy adaptations were slow

In August, Dr Ananda-rajah co-wrote an open letter to the federal government calling for the “immediate introduction of the P2/N95 respirator for any care of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients in order to save our lives.” 

The letter said the then guidelines did not adequately reflect the risk to healthcare workers from airborne particles of COVID-19, despite a growing body of evidence outlining the dangers.

“We believe that national policy on respiratory protection has not adapted to evidence for airborne transmission of COVID-19. 

“Flawed policy based only on contact or droplet modes of transmission has put healthcare workers at risk and added needlessly to their psychological distress.”

Protection of healthcare workers has been “reactionary rather than precautionary,” the letter stated.

Signatories of the letter also asked for reform of the Infection Control Expert Group, which advises on national PPE standards, to include occupational health and safety experts and representatives of frontline healthcare workers.

This change has still not been made.


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