Dr Kelly said staff working in all other clinical areas of the hospital must now wear a surgical mask and a face shield, under guidelines updated in response to Melbourne’s escalating outbreak.
“This advice is for a limited time and we will return to standard surgical masks when local prevalence declines,” Dr Kelly wrote.
Healthcare workers have for months been raising concerns about access to personal protective equipment in Melbourne hospitals, demanding to be allowed to wear P2 or N95 masks when treating all COVID-19 positive patients – but were told the higher level of protection was not necessary.
In NSW, health authorities upgraded state guidelines on Thursday to order all hospitals to provide healthcare workers with surgical masks if they came within 1.5 metres of patients, a move welcomed by the nurses’ union after months of lobbying.
Australian Health Protection Principal Committee advises respirator P2 or N95 respirator masks, which give almost complete protection against infected particles, only need to be worn by doctors and nurses performing “aerosol-generating” procedures such as intubation on patients with COVID-19.
Those performing other tasks in COVID-19 wards are given surgical masks, which provide a lower level of protection, with anaesthetists and surgeons performing invasive procedures on patients not suspected of having COVID-19 denied access to respirator masks, even if the patient is coughing.
The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s cluster of staff infections began on July 5 when a nurse, who had attended a training session for the hospital’s new digital record system, tested positive to COVID-19.
While the hospital has refused to provide an update on how many of its healthcare workers are now infected, sources said there were now 45 positive staff members, with 270 furloughed to isolate at home.
Hospital management opted to press ahead with the face-to-face training sessions, despite concerns being raised by some staff members, but shortened them from two hours to 90 minutes and ordered all attendees to wear surgical masks.
Thousands of relief workers have been deployed to fill gaps in Melbourne hospital rosters as the number of infected Victorian healthcare workers climbed to 601, including 300 active infections, on Friday.
On Thursday night, 211 of Australia’s 4531 active cases of COVID-19 were in hospital, almost all of them in Melbourne, where 40 patients were in intensive care.
The Victorian health department has repeatedly declined to give a total figure for the number of hospital staff furloughed due to COVID-19 exposure, but it is believed to be about 1500.
The department’s official tally of infected healthcare workers does not include ward clerks, cleaners, receptionists or disability workers, but does include doctors, nurses, midwives, paramedics, allied health workers (such as physiotherapists and psychologists) and aged care workers.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.