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Questions Without Notice - Healthcare Workers and COVID-19

Hospitals in some parts of the world, often those places with past experiences of SARS, have achieved low or zero rates of health worker infections. Given the substantial risk of another increase in incidence, what do Victorian hospitals plan to do differently to protect their staff from infection?

Dr READ (Brunswick): My question is for the Minister for Health, and I congratulate the minister for his appointment. Over the past three months we have had thousands of health workers infected by coronavirus, many in public hospitals. This, along with the need for staff who have been contacts to furlough, has led to difficulties filling some shifts, whereas hospitals in some parts of the world, often those places with past experiences of SARS, have achieved low or zero rates of health worker infections. Given the substantial risk of another increase in incidence, what do Victorian hospitals plan to do differently to protect their staff from infection?

Mr FOLEY (Albert Park—Minister for Health): Can I thank the member for Brunswick for his question, and can I also thank the member for Brunswick for the genuine good faith in which he goes about seeking to engage on the coronavirus pandemic with the government and me personally on this matter.

There is no more important group in battling the coronavirus than our last line of defence, our healthcare workers. As we stand here today there are now some 16 healthcare workers who are active cases, and that is substantially down from the height of the second peak. That involves not just our state-run healthcare settings but indeed primary healthcare settings and healthcare workers in other community and private residential aged-care settings.

In regard to how we can learn from global experience in what is a very new, emerging and still novel coronavirus, as I referred to earlier, that has been undertaken in a really genuinely collaborative way by our healthcare researchers and professionals in Victoria with our frontline health services, through weekly meetings about mapping the transmission of the virus both in healthcare settings and in the wider community and through sharing the information that also occurs around the nation and increasingly around the globe. Indeed there are many lessons that we can learn from other settings around the globe. In very recent times the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has come out as to how the virus is spread in an aerosol manner as opposed to earlier iterations of thought that it was largely through close contact. It still is motivated by contact and surfaces, but the science is evolving and in that regard our response is evolving.

In regard to specific measures around how we need to protect our own healthcare frontline workers from the spread of the coronavirus, we have established a coronavirus healthcare worker wellbeing and pandemic response group that meets weekly. I have had the privilege of joining that group twice in recent weeks. We get the experience of those people at the front line, whether it be for PPE, whether it be for N95 fit tests, whether it be for the issues around ambulance workers and how their aspects need to change or whether it be for the important issues around cleaning, the important issues around how we separate physical space within our hospital settings or the important issues around the other wards in our hospitals and the changes that need to happen to them—ventilation. The amount of work that is going on to make sure our frontline healthcare workers are protected and safe is enormous, but we will not rest until we get that figure down to zero.

Dr READ (Brunswick): The minister referred to the aerosol transmission of coronavirus and there has been evidence of that for several months as being a significant mode of transmission, and yet most hospital staff still have not had fit testing done for N95 masks and there is little or no uptake of re-usable elastomeric respirators, which have an even higher level of protection. Can the minister assure us that this will be expedited and update us on that?

Mr FOLEY (Albert Park—Minister for Health) I thank the member for Brunswick for his supplementary question. The issue of fit testing and the highest level of safety, which is really the issue when it comes to N95 respirators, is the one that is at the forefront for so many of our healthcare workers, particularly in the most risky areas of COVID wards. Fit testing and the rollout of N95 masks is underway. We are substantially down the path through our respiratory response task force, and the trials of rolling that out, particularly in the Melbourne metropolitan high-risk wards, are underway. Substantial work, particularly at Northern Hospital, has been undertaken. It is not as easy as it sounds, because these masks are quite restrictive—of course they are, because they have to be safe. But the honourable member sought an assurance, and I give him the assurance and I give all of our frontline healthcare workers the assurance that that rollout will continue.

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Dr Tim Read
Greens MP for Brunswick
14 October 2020



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