“If the government is serious about getting out of this they need to focus their attention on the vulnerable parts of the pandemic,” said Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah, an infectious diseases physician who has been campaigning for health worker safety.
“This virus exploits vulnerability. It will seek out the weakest points in your society.”
Health and aged care worker infections have fallen from a weekly high of 647 new cases to 191 in the week ending August 29, but there are still more than 1100 active cases linked to the sectors.
The Australian Medical Association’s Victorian president Julian Rait said morale among his members had improved but there was concern among doctors in training, who were most likely to be working with larger numbers of patients.
“We are very much anxious about their wellbeing and trying to address it,” he said.
Associate Professor Rait, who sits on the healthcare worker infection prevention taskforce, said he would like to see infection control protocols expedited wherever possible.
And he said fit-testing of high-grade N95 masks would be made mandatory, with hospital management contacted on Friday following weeks of agitation by the AMA and healthcare workers concerned that ill-fitting masks were exposing them to the virus.
He said emergency doctors had been encouraged to spend more time working at individual sites, rather than moving across multiple hospitals.
Professor Jodie McVernon, the director of epidemiology at Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, said more information needed to be given to the public about what was happening in high-risk settings, including aged care.
Premier Daniel Andrews said on Monday that a hypothetical “ring fence” had been placed around aged care in Victoria, where active cases dropped from 1225 to 873 in a week.
“We haven’t got people working in multiple sites,” he said.
“We’ve got [personal protective equipment] compliance at the highest level [that] it’s ever been.”
He said visits were being made to every private aged care facility in the state to assess their underlying risks, a step demanded by the AMA in July.
Surveillance testing for workers caring for COVID-19 patients will be offered to those in wards where more than 25 per cent of patients have the disease.
“Testing is voluntary, will be undertaken weekly and conducted for all staff working in the COVID-19 wards regardless of whether they are symptomatic at the time of testing,” the taskforce circular said.
Hospitals will have to complete assessments of their facilities against physical distancing standards by September 18.
The Health Department has also commissioned work to find out where infectious particles may settle in hospitals, creating dangerous hotspots.
At least 3107 healthcare workers have tested positive for coronavirus during the pandemic, a statistic Dr Ananda-Rajah blamed on inadequate protective equipment and training. She said these issues were even more pronounced among aged care workers, many of whom were casually employed and from migrant backgrounds.
“At the moment we have these loose-fitting gowns. There is a lot of skin that is still exposed,” she said. “We don’t have tight-fitting goggles and they are a really flimsy plastic.”
Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.