Australia Delayed N95 mask fit-testing at Victoria's coronavirus quarantine hotels 'rings alarm bells'

00:37  20 february  2021
00:37  20 february  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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a group of people that are standing in the street: Several certified fit testers tell the ABC it will take a few weeks to have all the staff earmarked to received N95 masks correctly fitted. (ABC News: Stephanie Ferrier) © Provided by ABC Health Several certified fit testers tell the ABC it will take a few weeks to have all the staff earmarked to received N95 masks correctly fitted. (ABC News: Stephanie Ferrier)

The Victorian government has not started rolling out professionally fitted N95 masks to all hotel quarantine workers, despite fears it was one of the key protocol gaps that allowed the virus to escape the system and send Melbourne into a five-day lockdown.

And workplace health and safety experts fear sub-standard N95s are already being used by some hotel employees who work with confirmed COVID-positive patients.

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"What that means for the community is that we don't actually have as strong security in the hotel quarantine program as we might like to think we do," said Dr Ben Veness, the co-founder of Healthcare Workers Australia.

Dr Veness, who campaigned to better protect hospital workers during Melbourne's second wave, said it was good the government had acknowledged things needed to change in hotel quarantine.

"[But] I don't have much confidence we're much further now than were a couple of weeks ago," he said.

"I'm heartened that we're starting to roll out vaccines [in hotel workers] from next week, but regardless, we still have to strengthen the system."

"Vaccinations should help reduce transmission from infected workers to the community, but vaccines don't stop transmission completely."

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Infected hotel workers mainly wore surgical masks

Three out of four of the workers who became infected at the Melbourne Airport Holiday Inn last week, contributing to the cluster of 22 cases, were wearing surgical masks.

A worker at Melbourne's Grand Hyatt who tested positive on February 4 was also wearing a surgical mask, though the virus didn't spread any further.

The cases prompted COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria (CQV) on February 10 to announce it would roll out more protective N95 masks to all front-facing workers in its 13 hotels.

Previously, only staff in situations deemed high-risk wore N95s.

While CQV has begun training sessions about how N95 masks should work, it has not begun fit-testing, where a certified tester uses a machine to see which model of mask fits the worker's face snugly enough to not let any virus particles in.

Workplace safety engineer Kate Cole said a delay in fit-testing "rings alarm bells".

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"The [hotel workers] may have N95 respirators, but without fit-testing, no-one can ensure that those N95 respirators actually work … and actually provide respiratory protection to those workers," the president-elect of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists said.

Ms Cole said that, in turn, placed the community at risk of another outbreak.

In a statement, CQV said "fit-testing would begin soon, as arrangements for equipment and trained fit-testers are finalised."

"Staff forums about the new requirements and process for fit-testing began last week along with some additional training."

Concerns about 'hot' hotels

Most workers at health or "hot" hotels, which host confirmed COVID-positive patients, have been wearing N95 masks since Victoria's hotel quarantine program re-started in December.

However, Ms Cole and Dr Veness said they were concerned that even some employees in those hotels had not been fit-tested, after seeing the protection that workers were wearing on Tuesday when they transported COVID-positive patients from the Holiday Inn Flinders Lane to another hotel due to water damage at the hotel.

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They said one of the masks they saw being used rarely formed a proper seal around the user's face and often failed fit-testing.

"It's certainly worrying that people are wearing N95s that typically have low fit-test pass rates because it means we haven't actually addressed the problem about the leaks from hotel quarantine," Dr Veness said.

CQV did not provide a response in time for publication.

Professional mask fit-testing takes time

Thousands of staff work across Victoria's hotel quarantine network under a variety of employers including CQV, Alfred Health, the individual hotels and Victoria Police. CQV alone employs 2,900 hotel quarantine workers.

Several certified fit-testers told the ABC it would take at least several weeks to have all the staff earmarked to received N95s last week properly tested, saying one fit-tester could fit between 12-15 people in a day.

CQV would not answer questions about how many staff needed to be fit-tested.

A spokesperson said N95 masks were already worn by CQV staff in quarantine hotels during new admissions, following a positive diagnosis, and when transferring an infected person to a health hotel.

"This is in addition to the standard mask, eye goggles and gowns that are worn during any face to face contact with residents," the spokesperson said.

There are currently 1,556 returned travellers and airline crew in Melbourne's hotel quarantine, with seven active cases of coronavirus.

Although Premier Daniel Andrews has paused international arrivals since the Holiday Inn outbreak, international airline staff continue to arrive — with 93 crew members landing on Thursday.

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Top Doctor Says Adults 65+ Need Vaccine Priority, Advises Essential Workers to Use N95 Masks .
Dr. Michael Osterholm said it's vital to "please get as many of our 65-year-olds and older vaccinated" before prioritizing other groups."If you look at the amount of vaccine we have coming into the system every day, you look at how the vaccine's being used, in fact 30 million out of the 54 million individuals 65 years of age and older in the United States will not have a drop of vaccine before April," Dr. Michael Osterholm said in an interview on PBS' Firing Line With Margaret Hoover that aired Friday.

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This is interesting!