The Infection Control Expert Group advises the nation’s key decision making body for health emergencies, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which includes state and territory chief health officers and is led by the Chief Medical Officer.
National guidelines advise healthcare workers to wear surgical masks in hospitals, which cover the mouth but are not air-tight, and to upgrade to P2 masks only during procedures on known or suspected COVID-19 patients that generate aerosols – such as intubation.
There have been 1075 infections among healthcare workers in Victoria, with 637 active cases and three requiring hospitalisation. NSW Health said 84 of its workers had tested positive and three were treated in intensive care.
Dr Benjamin Veness, a psychiatry registrar in Melbourne who helped co-ordinate the letter, said Victoria had changed its guidelines “at least in part due to pressure from healthcare workers”, and warned the national guidelines were acting as a handbrake on change in other states.
“National guidelines that don’t adequately protect workers slow the states from moving in the right direction,” Dr Veness said.
Chairwoman of the Infection Control Expert Group Professor Lyn Gilbert told ABC’s 7.30 program last week “for ordinary routine care of patients with COVID, surgical masks are appropriate”.
“The reason for that is that (P2) masks are not that easy to wear. They need to be properly fitted.”
The healthcare workers’ letter to Mr Hunt said Professor Gilbert’s assertion that healthcare workers “would either not tolerate or not be competent to wear respirators concerns us greatly”.
Another signatory to the letter, infectious disease specialist Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah, who works in a Victorian hospital, said the Infection Control Expert Group advice was outdated and had not changed in seven months, when it was thought COVID-19 was spread through physical contact and by airborne droplets.
“There is compelling evidence that the virus is airborne which is why healthcare workers need more protection, with at least P2 masks,” Dr Ananda-Rajah said.
“It has come at immense cost with healthcare workers getting sick, suffering psychological distress, and the healthcare system badly affected by furloughed staff.”
David Heslop, who specialises in physical occupational and environmental medicine, said it was important to acknowledge the “very highly regarded academic clinicians”, but argued broader advice was needed to update the national guidelines for hospital workers.
“Advice to the ICEG cannot come from a single perspective. It needs to be a balanced, nuanced approach with a multitude of voices including healthcare professionals, occupational hygienists and other experts in respiratory protection,” said Mr Heslop, who is associate professor at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW.
A spokesman for Mr Hunt said the government would “continue to follow the expert medical advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee and its expert advisory groups on the use of PPE” which was sourced from a wide range of experts.
NSW Health said in a statement that its guidelines were consistent with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which were set by the Infection Control Expert Group.
“NSW Health has sufficient PPE in its public hospitals. No member of staff is required or expected to undertake any work requiring PPE unless the appropriate PPE is available,” the statement said.
Mike is the climate and energy correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.