Australia

Health Minister Greg Hunt backs target of zero healthcare worker deaths

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Federal health minister Greg Hunt has backed a target of zero healthcare worker deaths from COVID-19, as a new outbreak at a Melbourne psychiatric facility pushed a further 60 workers into isolation after four staff members tested positive.

"Our goal has to be zero deaths amongst our nurses and our doctors," Mr Hunt said, granting the request of a group of concerned healthcare workers that a clear target be set of no further deaths among their ranks.

Health Minister Greg Hunt donned a face mask on Monday.

Health Minister Greg Hunt donned a face mask on Monday.

Monash Health confirmed on Monday that four healthcare workers at its Clayton psychiatric ward had contracted COVID-19 in an outbreak that sent 60 staff members into 14-day self isolation after the first worker tested positive on Thursday night.

It follows outbreaks among staff in recent weeks at at least a dozen healthcare facilities including the Alfred, The Northern Hospital, The Royal Melbourne, The Royal Women's, The Melbourne Clinic, The Albert Road Clinic, Brunswick Private, Box Hill Hospital and St Vincent's, along with 35 separate aged care services.

The Victorian health department has not detailed how many healthcare workers have been furloughed across the state's healthcare system, but hospital sources have led The Age and Sydney Morning Herald to believe it is now more than 1000.

Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck said workers in residential facilities or providing home care across Victoria’s lock down zones must now wear surgical masks, after the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee upgraded its advice on Monday.

Australian Medical Association Victorian President Julian Rait said the more than one million KN95 masks in the state government's warehouse "should now be deployed to all clinical areas within our hospitals" to ensure healthcare workers had access to the highest level of protection.

Respirator masks such as P2 and N95 are currently reserved for doctors and nurses performing aerosol-generating procedures such as intubation, but the AMA wants all healthcare workers treating patients with COVID-19 to be allowed to wear them when available.

More than 4500 healthcare workers signed a letter sent to all state, territory and federal leaders in May asking for a target of zero healthcare worker deaths, in the hopes this would lead to increased efforts at improving infection control and access to masks.

Only Tasmania, which had suppressed its own outbreak by closing two hospitals and placing the state's north-west region into lockdown, agreed to the target at the time.

Victoria's chief health officer Brett Sutton said on Monday "a significant number" of staff had been infected in the state's hospitals in the outbreak that began 10 days ago, calling on all healthcare workers in hospitals to wear masks even when not treating patients.

"A lot of that is obviously contact with patients, sometimes with mild symptoms, sometimes even before symptoms have emerged," Professor Sutton said.

Victorian disability nurse Sumith Premachandra became the state's first healthcare worker to die from COVID-19 in April.

Mr Hunt said the nation's health authorities must work towards the goal of "zero transmission within our hospitals, to protect our medical workers and to protect our patients."

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Professor Sutton said on Monday that all healthcare workers in the state must wear masks "across all settings in the hospital, including when they're interacting with other healthcare workers."

"It's a risky profession to be in the emergency department, in ICU, on any of the wards in hospitals where coronavirus patients occur," he said. "They need to be absolutely mindful of protecting themselves."

Doctors and nurses have for weeks been pushing for surgical masks to be made available in non-clinical areas of hospitals in Victoria and NSW, warning that cramped conditions made it impossible to socially distance from colleagues.

Mr Hunt said he recognised the "real challenges" of preventing outbreaks in healthcare, since "a hospital by its nature, although it's a highly controlled and regulated environment, has those very people who have been ill, and we know that this is a highly contagious disease."

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The federal government was releasing an additional five million masks to Victoria from the national medical stockpile, he said, including one million to primary healthcare workers and four million to aged care and home care workers.

The state government had more than 85 million pairs of gloves, 34 million surgical masks, 1.3 million N95 masks, 2 million face shields and 1.7 million gowns in its warehouse on Saturday.

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