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8 Aug 2020 0:43
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  •   Home > News > Health & Safety

    Victorian healthcare workers continue to face shortages of PPE as coronavirus cases ramp up

    Healthcare workers continue to struggle to get hold of personal protective equipment and fear they may be facing even more shortages as cases climb and the Victorian Government recommends everyone in the state starts using masks.

    Victorian healthcare workers are yet again appealing for more urgent action to boost supplies of personal protective equipment as the number of coronavirus cases in hospitals and aged care facilities continues to climb.

    Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said he predicted the number of hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19 would soon get much worse.

    "We will see an increase in hospitalised and ICU cases, and in deaths, in the coming days because of the spike that we have seen in recent days," he said at a press conference on Friday.

    "It is because we're seeing people who are most vulnerable, the elderly, those with chronic illness, coming down with [an] infection."

    On Thursday, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) named six aged care facilities where workers tested positive for the virus.

    Cases are also growing within hospitals; Northern Health, which includes the Northern Hospital in Epping and Broadmeadows Hospital, has confirmed 14 staff tested positive to coronavirus over the last nine days.

    Austin Health, Royal Melbourne Hospital, Brunswick Private Hospital, St Vincent's Hospital, The Alfred Hospital and the Royal Women's Hospital have all had staff or patients contract the virus in the last week.

    The unrelenting rise in cases of the virus in Victoria has led the State Government to recommend everyone in the state wear a mask when they are unable to remain 1.5 metres away from others.

    While Premier Daniel Andrews said the Government would order 2 million reusable masks for community distribution and boost local manufacturing capabilities, many healthcare workers are concerned a surge in demand for masks will result in bigger shortages than they are already experiencing.

    A survey of 500 healthcare workers across Australia by law firm Slater and Gordon found half were experiencing shortages of PPE, making them stressed and anxious.

    Slater and Gordon group leader Andrea Kehoe said in some circumstances, only low-quality masks were available to aged care and disability workers, who did not have much of a choice unless they sourced PPE themselves.

    "The healthcare and social assistance sector will continue to be the ones on the frontline of this crisis, caring for the sick and elderly and those living with a disability," Ms Kehoe said.

    "If a worker suffers long-term health impacts after contracting the virus at work, they might be entitled to financial support for their permanent injury, and in some circumstances, an employer could be found to be negligent if adequate PPE hadn't been provided."

    The Health Workers Union in Victoria has also said it is becoming increasingly frustrated with a continued lack of PPE for its members.

    The union's state secretary, Diana Asmar, told the ABC she had been lobbying the State Government for four months to get hold of masks, gloves, eye masks and coveralls for its hospital, pathology, disability and aged care staff.

    "From what we've seen in the USA, the highest death rate is in aged care and the highest rate of catching coronavirus is in health care workers," Ms Asmar said.

    Three days before the State Government publicly announced its revised advice on face masks, the DHHS sent an email to chief executives of hospitals in Victoria saying it was now reasonable for staff and patients "in public-facing areas of all services in Metropolitan Melbourne to adopt Tier 1 PPE precaution".

    Ms Asmar said while hospitals were complying with the recommendation, there appeared to be a hierarchal system of supply because of shortages, with intensive care staff doctors and nurses receiving masks and gowns before anyone else.

    She also said it was disappointing to hear Professor Sutton say on Friday that supply of PPE to aged care was "a Commonwealth responsibility".

    "Nothing has been provided to aged care workers. Pathology collectors don't have it either," Ms Asmar said.

    It has left the union wondering where the 30 million masks secured by the Federal Government in April have ended up.

    Hospitals begin rationing masks, staff make face shields from plastic folders

    A Northern Health spokesperson said all staff were being issued with the appropriate PPE provided by management, and all visitors and patients were being supplied face masks.

    But a nurse from The Northern, who did not want to be named, said P2/N95 masks and disposable gowns now had to be requested by the nurse in charge and were being rationed.

    "You can't help yourself to it and it makes us worried because we don't know what we'll be able to get hold of," she said.

    A staff member at Dandenong Hospital, which is part of Monash Health, also said masks were being held back.

    The worker said all staff were told by management at 5:30pm on Friday to hand in any unused masks and told they would have to be requested from now on.

    Monash Health has been approached for comment.

    Disability worker Vasalia, who preferred to not use her last name, worked in disability care until early June and said she was bartering with other staff for gloves and hand sanitiser until the day she left.

    "We had lots of toilet paper so I said, can I have a box of gloves and I'll give you toilet paper," she said.

    "We need to use gloves at work, that's your basic bread and butter."

    She travelled to Officeworks on her days off with colleagues to buy clear plastic folders for homemade face shields.

    Health and Community Services Union state secretary Paul Healey said Vasalia was not alone and there was a chronic shortage of both surgical and P2/N95 masks in disability care.

    "In disability, the supply of PPE has been absolutely problematic the whole time. It's better now than it was four months ago but staff are being told to use it sparingly and only in emergencies."

    Mr Healey said he did not know why there were continued shortages.

    "The Government, to the best of their ability, have tried, but we get feedback every day from staff that there's still not enough gloves, face masks and even hand sanitiser in disability home care.

    "There's even difficulty getting access to food for residents because of the limits of things like pasta.

    "Staff end up going to the supermarket three or four times to get the supplies."

    Mr Healey said the union had lobbied the State Government for thermometers to temperature check clients but some disability providers were not passing them on to staff.

    He said while the response when a client or staff member tests positive to the virus was "perfect", more needed to be done to prevent people from catching it in the first place.

    "Staff can't walk in to work and say, 'give me a mask'," he said.

    "There's a hierarchy of needs; it's hospitals first, then it flows down and disability is at the end of the line."

    Mr Healey said disability clients often did not understand physical distancing because of cognitive disabilities, making it easier for the virus to spread.

    Royal Melbourne Hospital continues face-to-face training

    A doctor who works at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and did not want his name used said staff were beginning to boycott the hospital's electronic medical record (EMR) training due to fears of coronavirus.

    The training is face to face, and two people who attended a two-hour session have already caught coronavirus.

    "Coronavirus is amongst us and that's why I still can't believe we are going ahead with the EMR training," the doctor said.

    "Most of us have abandoned it."

    A hospital spokesperson said nurses from the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Royal Women's Hospital had tested positive for COVID-19 and were both in attendance at different EMR sessions.

    Internal emails seen by the ABC show more EMR face-to-face sessions are going ahead but have been shortened to 90 minutes.

    The doctor from the hospital said it was ridiculous the sessions were continuing and they were putting staff at risk.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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