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We must protect our healthcare workers

As Dr Li foreshadowed, adequate protective gear is critical for healthcare workers. Officials say Australia has enough stock of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns. This month the NSW Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, said there were 88.9 million surgical masks in the NSW stockpile and 41.3 million N95 respirator masks.

But peak health bodies say their members are worried. Their surveys have found one in five doctors and nurses have limited or no access to face masks. While critical areas such as emergency and ICU are generally well stocked, advocates say, other areas have been left wanting, or the gear is locked away and difficult to access, especially overnight. State and federal governments must make sure we have adequate stock levels and supply chains to get the right gear to where it is needed – and that it is accessible.

How COVID-19 spreads is still a mystery. Even the national guidelines acknowledge the evidence about transmission is limited and contradictory. But the World Health Organisation has recognised that airborne transmission is a possibility and evidence of this is growing. This is why healthcare advocates are calling for greater use of N95 respirator masks across the country, which offer greater protection against airborne illnesses.

The national guidelines say surgical masks are enough for most healthcare workers, with N95 masks only advised for those involved in particular procedures involving COVID-19 patients. But peak bodies want all workers who are treating a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patient to be wearing one. This is now the official advice in Victoria, although it is not mandatory. NSW must consider altering its guidelines too.

Nurses wearing face shields and surgical masks swab drivers for COVID-19 at a drive-through clinic in Geelong.

Nurses wearing face shields and surgical masks swab drivers for COVID-19 at a drive-through clinic in Geelong.Credit:Getty Images

Peak bodies are also calling for all workers to be fit-tested for their masks, to ensure they know which size and model fits their face and how to adjust it. This is common practice in other parts of the world and ensures a worker’s mouth and nose are properly sealed. But it requires all hospitals to have access to fit-testing machines – and more models of mask available. NSW took steps this week to implement widespread fit-testing. Victoria must follow suit.

Workers must also be properly trained and confident in how to use personal protection equipment, otherwise it is useless. This is especially important in aged care settings, where staff are not as familiar with it. Care must also be taken to ensure workers who are not native English speakers understand what they must do to protect themselves and others.

Finally, we must look out for the mental health of those on the frontline and ensure they have adequate support. Every new infection among healthcare workers lowers morale among staff and increases the pressure on those still able to work. There is a terrible catch-22 here. Exhausted workers are far more likely to make a mistake when it comes to putting on and taking off their protective gear – increasing the risk they too will become infected.

As we face the reality of a long and extended fight against COVID-19, we must do all we can to protect our healthcare workers and address their concerns and fears. Their health has never been so vital to our own.

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