Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said her government was “thankful to our dedicated healthcare workers” and would “do whatever we can to protect them”, saying “every single life matters”, but would not commit to the target.
“It’s up to every one of us to ensure we each do our part to slow the spread and keep each other safe,” she said.
The state’s COVID-19 outbreak has affected workers at a dozen hospitals – including the Royal Melbourne Hospital, which banned visitors on Tuesday after the number of infected staff increased to 12, along with 35 aged care services with 50 infected staff.
On Tuesday, there were 114 active healthcare workers in Victoria, out of 330 since the pandemic began. In NSW, there have been 88 healthcare worker infections.
The number of Victorian healthcare workers forced into 14-day isolation due to exposure to infected colleagues is believed to be more than 1000.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard declined to comment, but a spokeswoman for his department said there had been “no cases among [the state’s] healthcare workers in the past three weeks” and staff safety was “of the utmost importance”.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Monday voiced his support for the target, saying: “Our goal has to be zero deaths amongst our nurses and our doctors”.
Melbourne psychiatry registrar Benjamin Veness, who wrote the letter, said NSW and Victoria had previously set targets of zero for road fatalities and serious injuries, suicides, and avoidable patient harm and it was “imperative” both states set the same goal for healthcare workers.
“Clearly stemming from a target of zero deaths is a target of zero infections, which is critical not only for the healthcare workers themselves, but also for the families they come home to and the patients they treat,” Dr Veness said.
“If the Premiers of NSW and Victoria are serious about their commitment to protecting the community from COVID-19, they must do everything in their power to protect their health workforce [who are] the last line of defence.”
Victorian disability nurse Sumith Premachandra was the nation’s first healthcare worker to die from COVID-19 in April.
Australian Medical Association President Tony Bartone said any government that objected to the target of zero healthcare worker deaths was “perversely telling doctors and nurses their workplace isn’t safe” and that “every resource” should be deployed towards the goal.
Dr Veness said the zero death target should “lay the basis of a workplace safety improvement plan that supports achievement of this target”.
Royal Australasian College of Physicians President John Wilson said he could not see any reason “why anyone wouldn’t” support the target and called for action to address reports they are hearing of hospitals in COVID-19 hotspots failing to enforce the new policy on wearing masks.
Professor Wilson said healthcare workers must be given access to “the appropriate level” of personal protective equipment, and this must include a P2 or N95 respirator mask for treating all confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients, a position shared by the AMA.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee’s national guidelines state that respirator masks should only be used for so-called “aerosol-generating” procedures such as intubation.
Infectious disease expert Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity research program at the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia on Tuesday arguing the advice must be upgraded based on the latest scientific evidence showing the virus was airborne.
“Our health workers are a precious asset, and warrant the highest protection – not simply for their occupational health and safety, but for a functional and resilient health system,” Professor MacIntyre wrote in the paper.
Healthcare workers made up an estimated 6 per cent of Australia’s COVID-19 infections to date, she wrote, although the proportion could be higher due to the lack of national or state reporting of health worker infections.
Ms Mikakos said the Victorian government supplied protective equipment to all of the state’s public hospitals and had “millions of PPE items arriving at our warehouse regularly to be distributed to frontline health care workers”.
A NSW Health spokeswoman said the state’s PPE guidelines “are consistent with AHPPC advice” and its hospitals had “sufficient personal protective equipment”.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.