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Healthcare workers to be told who can and can’t have protective equipment

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It will be headed by Victoria’s chief medical officer, Professor Andrew Wilson, who told The Age that the sector was crying out for consistent and clear information about what protective equipment was needed for staff.

“That’s been causing some anxiety to people, which is understandable,” the cardiologist said.

There has been a deluge of reports from doctors and nurses who have been unable to get their hands on the right gear when they need it, amid fears shortages rather than safety is driving policy about who gets access to equipment.

Of concern, at least 157 Victorian healthcare workers have already been infected with coronavirus.

Dr Bernard Shiu, Victorian faculty member with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP), is one of the doctors who will give advice to the new taskforce.

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Dr Shiu said the group, which also includes infectious diseases and emergency department doctors, would look at existing guidelines from bodies such as the World Health Organisation and consider what was applicable to Victoria.

He said the aim was to provide workers with clear information about what gear they should be wearing and when.

“If all a person needs is a surgical mask, which there is an abundance of, then they’ll feel more reassured, rather than thinking they need a hazmat for checking a patient’s blood pressure,” the Geelong doctor said.

Widespread inappropriate use of equipment, along with panic buying and stockpiling, has worsened shortages in medical masks and respirators, gowns and goggles, according to the World Health Organisation.

Its guidelines on the “rational use” of protective equipment calls for visitors to be banned from areas where COVID-19 patients are isolated if possible, while it recommends N95 or similar respirators only be used for a very small number of procedures.

Dr Cameron Loy says doctors had been going to Bunnings to buy masks and goggles or sewing their own gowns.

Dr Cameron Loy says doctors had been going to Bunnings to buy masks and goggles or sewing their own gowns.Credit:Jason South

Britain’s National Health Service also provides extensive recommendations for the use of seven protective items, advising people working in a labour ward with a suspected COVID-19 patient to don five pieces of gear, while pharmacy staff and ambulance drivers who don’t have any direct contact with patients can go without.

While Australia has seen far fewer coronavirus cases to date, the shortage of some equipment has already become so dire that Victorian RACGP chair Dr Cameron Loy said doctors had been going to Bunnings to buy masks and goggles or sewing their own gowns.

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A number of patients at his Lara clinic had even been seen in their cars, as doctors tried to find creative ways to avoid contact with potentially infected patients. The clinic is down to its last two gowns.

“It seems clear now, that as a nation, we were caught short,” he said.

One of the jobs of the Victorian taskforce will to be to attempt to source protective equipment from suppliers. They are also likely to consider recycling and sterilising some used gear.

Victorian AMA president Julian Rait has been raising the alarm about uneven distribution of equipment across Melbourne’s hospitals.

He said he supported the guidelines for the appropriate use of protective equipment, noting that the highest risk group were likely anaesthetists performing intubation of COVID-19 patients, who would need the best-available gear.

“But the risk for others is a sliding scale,” Associate Professor Rait said. “You don’t want everyone walking around in the level-four moon suit.”

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