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Protecting health workers from coronavirus


I’m very concerned that our health system hasn’t done as much as possible to protect staff. Hospitals in other countries have achieved low or zero rates of infection in staff and we need to learn from them.

I spoke to a medical colleague on the phone this week and he was recovering from COVID-19. He still had a wheezy cough. As a hospital specialist he has to get close to the sickest patients and despite precautions, it’s hard not to breathe their air.

He’s doing fine, but not everybody recovers so well. Italy has lost over 200 health workers, Russia, almost 500 doctors, and the US 1289 health workers, to this virus. Thousands of hospital staff around the world are forced to sit at home, unable to work lest they infect colleagues or patients. Here in Victoria, the odds of a health worker becoming infected are more than 11 times higher than those faced by the rest of us.

I've been contacted by many health workers this year, who are feel the state government has failed in their duty to keep them safe.

The state government has done well to obtain millions of masks and gloves when global demand was so high, but despite our hospitals churning through millions of masks each week, thousands of staff have become infected.

This week I repeated our earlier calls for automatic compensation for lost income for infected health workers and I also called for greater use of non-disposable masks.

Victoria is now using 800,000 expensive disposable N95 masks, plus a much larger number of gloves and surgical masks and gowns, every week. Most of this personal protective equipment is imported, used, then burned. It’s expensive and it’s a waste problem and we’re dependent on overseas supply chains.

Miners and others working in hazardous air are given high-quality reusable elastomer respirators. They fit better and filter aerosols better. I’ve written to the Health Minister encouraging her to obtain these for health workers at highest risk of infection and also to support local production of ventilation hoods, a tent that covers infected patients, preventing the escape of infectious aerosols.

So it's good to see a recent announcement from the Premier to increase the availability and use of N95 masks and to trial fit testing at one hospital. This is welcome if a little late. Fit testing has been actively discouraged at some hospitals. It's a technical procedure to determine whether a given brand of mask fits your face. It's not cheap, but health workers are worth protecting. Given the improved fit of reusable elastomer respirators, I wonder whether these are a better idea than burning through hundreds of disposable N95 masks and paying for fit testing. I'm hoping to learn more at this webinar on Tuesday evening.

It’s not just a question of science. I want our health staff to feel safe when they turn up to work.

Sign up for my newsletter here. 

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Dr Tim Read
Greens MP for Brunswick
28 August 2020
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