A student nurse who contracted COVID-19 while working in a Melbourne nursing home with known positive cases says she was told a surgical mask “would be enough” to keep her safe.
- The student nurse says she asked for an N95 respirator but was told a surgical mask “would be enough”
- She got symptoms two days after working in the home, and was diagnosed with COVID-19 a day later
- A healthcare union says COVID-19 infections could have been reduced if the guidance on N95 masks for aged care homes was updated earlier
The nurse, who did not want to be named, was sent to work at BlueCross Ruckers Hill aged care in early August after a coronavirus outbreak in the home.
She began to get flu-like symptoms two days after working in the home, in Northcote in Melbourne’s north.
She was diagnosed with COVID-19 one day later.
While working in the home, she was provided full personal protective equipment (PPE) but not an N95 mask.
N95 masks fit snugly on the face and provide a higher level of protection than surgical masks.
“We had a surgical mask, gown, gloves and goggles but no N95 [mask] or further protection,” she said.
While the nurse cannot be certain she caught the virus at BlueCross Ruckers Hill, she is confident the lack of an N95 mask was the chink in her armour that led to the infection.
As of Monday, the home had recorded 130 cases of COVID-19 and 12 deaths from the virus.
Of the 766 deaths from COVID-19 in Victoria, at least 596 have been linked to aged care facilities.
Aged care workers make up a significant proportion of Victorians infected during the state’s second wave.
Union believes faster adoption of N95 masks could have reduced aged care infections
Andrew Hewat, the assistant secretary for the Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association, said the nurse would have been wearing an N95 mask if the Victorian Government had updated its PPE guidance for aged care homes earlier.
The Government updated the guidelines on July 31 and recommended all hospital staff in contact with COVID-positive and suspected-COVID cases should wear an N95 mask.
But it took almost two more weeks for the same update to be made for aged care homes.
Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) did not answer questions about why there was a delay updating the advice.
Instead, a spokesperson pointed to national advice for aged care workers take precautions and use eye protection after an outbreak.
“Victoria updated that advice to go further, mandating the use of N95 masks during an outbreak in addition to the standard requirements,” the spokesperson said.
Mr Hewat said there could have been “significantly fewer infections” in aged care homes if there had not been a delay updating the guidance note.
‘The staffroom was overflowing with clinical waste’
The nurse said it was “chaotic” when she went into the aged care home and there was “no real training about how to care for people with COVID”.
She said some of the carers hired from agencies “were sent to work in the COVID-positive wards despite it being their first ever shift as a personal carer in aged care”.
She also saw people using PPE incorrectly.
“They would come out of the room, which was a COVID room, with full PPE on and then infect the hallways,” she said.
“You’re supposed to take it off inside the room and come out fresh. They would take it off inside the hallway.
The nurse said the home’s management sent staff guidelines on how much PPE they were allowed to use each day.
“They said, ‘You’re using too much and this is how much we think you need,'” she said.
“They told the staff they only needed to change their gloves and nothing else.”
BlueCross defends PPE training and practices
A spokesperson from BlueCross said the company complied with all of DHHS’s infection prevention and control requirements.
“On-site training includes live demonstrations of donning/doffing PPE, one-on-one observations and coaching in PPE plus on-the-spot refreshers by managers at shift changeovers and staff meetings,” the spokesperson said.
“BlueCross commenced the use of N95 masks as soon as it was mandated by the Government.”
According to private meetings leaked to the ABC, Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer Andrew Wilson was reluctant to provide N95 masks to more healthcare workers because it would “burn through the supplies in one week”.
But earlier this week, Professor Wilson said guidance about PPE was based on evidence and expert advice.
“We work with lots of people from the sector … to develop those guidance documents,” he said.
“Our guidance in Victoria was increased at the start of August; it’s stronger than the national guidance, it’s stronger than the World Health Organization guidance, it’s stronger than the guidance in the UK.”
Professor Wilson acknowledged some people had asked for the masks in situations where the expert advice was that the masks were not necessary.
He said the guidelines were reviewed every week.
“I hope people can imagine, if you’re increasing from using 50-1,000 masks a week up to 900,000, you have to be very careful about what that means for your supply in the longer term and we’ve always been really careful about that.”