New COVID measures to protect healthcare workers

Matt Woodley

11/09/2020 4:27:45 PM

It is hoped a review of infection control guidelines, ‘disease detectives’, and enhanced surveillance will reduce transmission rates.

Doctor in full PPE displaying P2/N95 mask.
Infection control has been a constant source of angst throughout the pandemic.

The three new initiatives, designed to help states and territories learn from what has occurred in Victoria and new information from around the world, come in the wake of ongoing worry around healthcare worker infection control guidance.
That concern has intensified in recent months as reports of aerosol transmission gained traction, culminating in a letter signed by more than 230 scientists imploring health authorities to employ more stringent protections.
The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) also recently unilaterally upgraded its own infection control guidelines for aged care healthcare workers, requiring the use of surgical masks and goggles at all times, and P2/N95 respirators when treating suspected COVID-19 cases.
GPs were initially instructed to don P2/N95 respirators when collecting samples from all suspected coronavirus cases, but that advice was downgraded in February following input from the Infection Control Advisory Group – a precursor to the Infection Control Expert Group (ICEG).
ICEG has remained steadfast in its position since then – despite the high infection rates, and mounting criticism from outside experts and frontline healthcare workers – and instead sought to blame poor compliance and community transmission for the outbreaks.
However, the pressure appears to have told, as the first measure introduced by Government to ‘provide increased protection to help reduce the number of healthcare workers being infected with COVID-19’ is a new partnership between ICEG and the National COVID-19 Evidence Taskforce.
‘This partnership will bring together Australia’s leading infection control practitioners, many of whom are frontline clinicians, with other senior healthcare workers to review the latest evidence on infection prevention and control during COVID-19,’ a joint release from Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) revealed.
‘The partnership will contribute to national infection control guidance by providing consensus guidelines on specific infection control issues that have emerged during COVID-19.’
The new reforms will also result in an expansion of national surveillance of healthcare worker infection, aimed at providing a better understanding of COVID-19 among healthcare workers at the state and territory level.
‘This will provide more information on the type of healthcare workers who are becoming infected, and enable state and territory governments to target their investigations and interventions based on national-level data,’ the release stated.
The third measure involves a new network of ‘COVID-NET’ epidemiologists, dubbed ‘disease detectives’, who will be available on request to help state and territory public health units investigate healthcare worker outbreaks. They will also gather and analyse data on healthcare worker infection at a national level.
‘We are committed to assisting the states and territories to understand where workplace controls designed to protect healthcare workers can [be] further strengthened,’ the joint released stated.
‘It is important healthcare facilities continue to review their controls and strengthen these to ensure workers are better protected.
‘Our healthcare workers are doing an outstanding job of bravely caring for the health and wellbeing of Australians who have either contracted – or are suspected to have contracted – COVID-19.
‘They are at the frontline of our fight against COVID-19 and deserve the greatest possible protection from contracting the virus themselves.’
It is not known how many GP coronavirus cases there have been nationwide, but at least two were placed in intensive care as a result of contracting the disease, including a doctor in her 30s who is believed to have been infected while working at a GP respiratory clinic.
There are currently 147 GP-led respiratory clinics across the country, while four out of five coronavirus patients are being cared for in the community by GPs.
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