Nurses have written to Daniel Andrews asking to “urgently know what’s being done to protect and care for Victorian nurses” as more than 730 health workers in the state remain sick with active infections of Covid-19.
The letter to the premier, seen by Guardian Australia, states “the situation is still inadequate months after the outbreak started”.
It was written by a member of the College of Mental Health Nurses, Claire Hudson-McAuley, who detailed stories shared by nurses, including a nurse working in a surgeon’s rooms who said only surgeons were provided with protective N95 masks.
“[The nurse] speaks to the surgeons about personal protective gear [PPE] but they are not interested in the wellbeing of the three nurses who work there,” the letter states.
“The surgeons want the nurses, who also work on the desk, to sit in the reception crowded space with no protection … the surgeons further suggest the nurses supply their own PPE if they are worried. The nurse who reports this to me is highly distressed.”
Guardian Australia has contacted the premier’s office for comment, but Hudson-McAuley said she had not received a response to the letter since sending it to the premier’s office, the Greens and the federal government last Thursday.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, passed her letter on to the Office of Health Protection and Response, who told her on Tuesday: “While hospital management and PPE supply to health care workers in hospitals is a state and territory responsibility, the Australian government through the national medical stockpile has been supplementing state and territories supply of PPE.”
The office also said that as a result of the rising number of cases in Victoria, and changes to clinical advice on the use of PPE in several jurisdictions, there had been a substantial increase in dispatches from the stockpile in the past month.
But another nurse, who works as an anaesthetic nurse in theatre, told Hudson-McAuley that surgeons, surgical assistants and anaesthetists were all issued N95 masks but that she was only given a paper mask despite having to stand next to the surgeon in the theatre.
“Nurse educators in major private and public hospitals say there just isn’t enough PPE for the nurses to be safe,” the letter states.
“The stories above are a small taste of the dozens of deeply disturbing stories I have heard, carefully curated to protect the identities of the sources from a vindictive and bullying culture that long precedes the pandemic.”
A nurse, who did not want to be named for fear of repercussions, separately told Guardian Australia she was distressed that the Victorian government kept saying most health workers were being infected in the community, without detailing how many, or how the infections were being acquired in the workplace.
“It’s disingenuous, and does nothing to explain the higher rates of infection amongst health care workers,” said the nurse, who works at a major Melbourne hospital.
“That’s why it’s upsetting. If they got up and said ‘Listen, we don’t have enough PPE but here is what we are doing to improve the situation,’ that would be one thing. But we are not being told the full story.”
At her hospital, nurses involved in the personal care of Covid-19 patients, such as showering them, were told a surgical paper mask and goggles would be sufficient, rather than the more protective N95 masks. She said she asked the head of infection control whether he would feel safe in such a situation and said she was told about “risk stratification and low and high-risk areas”, without receiving an adequate answer.
“I asked if we could bring our own N95 masks and pay for them and the answer was that the optics of that would be bad, and that the hospital didn’t want to set a precedent,” she said. “I don’t at all think managers are rubbing their hands together asking themselves how they can put nurses in harm’s way, but we are not being adequately protected. And I’ve been stressed and frightened.”
Meanwhile, in a public post on Facebook, a doctor described acquiring the virus despite taking all precautions. “I followed every rule I was given,” she wrote. “I took PPE seriously. I got Covid-19 from looking after people with it in a major Melbourne tertiary hospital.
“To my interstate friends, please focus your energy on advocacy for PPE,” she wrote. “PPE has been too little too late across the world and we’re not learning from our colleagues before us.”
Guardian Australia has repeatedly asked the Victorian health department for a breakdown of the hospitals with active Covid-19 infections among staff but has not received a response.
On Tuesday, the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Nick Coatsworth, said: “We need to look very carefully at healthcare work infections to determine whether there has been any breach in PPE, if PPE has been put on or off correctly, and I think the most pertinent discussion at the moment is where and when P2 and N95 respirators should be used.”
Advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPCC) states the routine care of Covid-19 positive patients can be performed with a less protective surgical mask and not an N95 mask.
“I have been in personal discussions with the chief medical officer of Victoria and I know there have been a number of healthcare work infections where there has been concerned that appropriate PPE is being used, and yet the virus is still being contracted,” Coatsworth said.
“That alone does not constitute an in-depth investigation. But it is of concern, and so the Victorian department of health and human services, last Friday I believe, went to more widespread use of P2 and N95 respirators within their facilities.”
He said the AHPPC may revise its advice as a result.
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