Introduction by Croakey: The Victorian Government this week released data revealing that up to 80 percent of the more than 2,500 health care workers infected with COVID-19 had contracted the disease in their workplace.
The news came as no surprise to many who had doubted earlier Government estimates of a workplace infection rate of up to 15 percent among healthcare workers.
In the article below, Melbourne doctor-in-training Dr Benjamin Veness renews his calls for the Victorian Government to set an explicit target of zero health care worker deaths from COVID-19. And, he writes, it’s time to empower the state’s Minister for Workplace Safety to take responsibility for this “awful mess”.
Benjamin Veness writes:
How many healthcare workers need to be infected with COVID-19 before you will take serious action to keep us safe at work, Premier Andrews? 3,000? 4,000? Tell me your number. How many healthcare worker deaths?
Doublespeak deceives, usually through concealment or misrepresentation of truth. In his media release of 25 August, Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews said, “Our health heroes take care of us – and we need to take care of them.”
What could be more disingenuous than this Premier hailing us as heroes and proclaiming a commitment to take care of us?
For weeks, this Premier looked journalists straight in the eye and told them only a minority of healthcare workers were getting sick at work. We were getting infected in the ‘community’, he and the seemingly sidelined Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos claimed.
Apparently my once-weekly grocery shop in a Level 3 surgical mask is more dangerous than my daily attendance at a hospital in the middle of the worst pandemic in Australia’s collective memory.
This utter nonsense was rejected immediately by healthcare workers, yet our disputation was ignored. By and large healthcare workers are a conservative, cautious lot. I wash almost everything I buy on my weekly grocery shop; I exercise alone; I have stopped buying takeaway coffee so I don’t touch the cup or sip from its lip; and I wash my hands so often my skin cracks.
Zero deaths target
Several of my doctor friends have been infected by COVID-19 in recent weeks and all believe they caught it at work. All have identified obvious deficiencies in COVID-19 infection prevention at their hospital, been appalled by the delays in hearing from a clearly-overwhelmed Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), and expressed dismay at the feeble contact tracing they experienced.
In one case, a DHHS contact tracer said they did not know how to access nor use data from the COVIDSafe app.
A fellow doctor and I wrote to Premier Dan Andrews on 3 May pleading for him to adopt an explicit target of zero healthcare worker deaths from COVID-19.
We enclosed an open letter signed by 4,617 healthcare workers across Australia, plus five pages of quotes we collected about workplace safety concerns. A copy was sent separately to Minister Mikakos. Neither the Premier nor the Minister have replied, and when followed-up by the media, they continued to refuse to set a target for us not to die at work.
Both the Australian and Victorian Governments continue to seek advice from the wrong sources. The Infection Control Expert Group at a federal level lacks the expertise of occupational medicine, occupational hygiene, work health and safety, aerosol science and representatives of those of us with the most skin in the game in this pandemic.
In Victoria, the Minister for Health and her department have failed abysmally, with at least 2,838 healthcare workers infected as of 27 August. The hurriedly and belatedly convened Healthcare Worker Infection Prevention and Wellbeing Taskforce should not be under her aegis.
This is a workplace safety issue and responsibility for protecting us at work should sit under the Minister for Workplace Safety, Jill Hennessy, and WorkSafe Victoria.
Fit testing essential
‘Fit testing’ of P2 or N95 respirators is one of many examples where the Premier and Minister for Health continue to dither. On 25 August they announced a ‘trial’ in a single health service.
Fit testing is essential to ensure a respirator forms a seal around the wearer’s nose and mouth to prevent air, and SARS-CoV-2, leaking in and out.
Women, who constitute the majority of our nursing and aged care workforce and are thus at highest risk of COVID-19, fail this test more often than men.
Fit testing is standard practice across the border in SA Health, required as part of a respiratory protection program under AS 1715:2009, and de rigueur in mining and construction.
There is nothing to trial, Premier, and the only barrier to rolling it out statewide is a lack of leadership and willpower.
While writing this, I have been interrupted by a phone call from a frightened colleague at Frankston Hospital. They are in chaos.
Scores of healthcare workers have been infected, hundreds more are furloughed, and all patients and staff are being swabbed to get a handle on the true scope of the outbreak. Despite being more than half a year into this pandemic, we appear to have learned very little from our previous mistakes, from health services abroad, or from recent pandemics like SARS at the turn of the century.
Enforce workplace safety
Actions speak louder than words, Premier, and your actions show you are not committed to keeping us safe at work.
Stop calling us heroes as though we volunteered for this or continue working because we care for your praise. Stand with us, preferably on a COVID-19 ward. Empower the Minister for Workplace Safety to take responsibility for this awful mess and force our employers to take all reasonably practicable measures to keep us safe at work, as your own legislation requires.
We cannot hold the last line of defence for the community if we are furloughed, sick, or dead.