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Health workers running out of coronavirus masks, protective gear as doctors call for urgent action


March 25, 2020 07:03:38

Doctors are appealing for more urgent government action to boost supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, with one medical supplier warning hundreds of hospitals are on the verge of running out of masks.

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Key points:

  • Queensland’s hospitals will run out of masks in “probably about a week”, a clinician says
  • The state’s chief health officer Jeannette Young says extra supplies received last Friday will be distributed urgently
  • Hospitals are also having to deter theft of their own supplies amid a worldwide PPE shortage

The Federal Government has promised an extra 30 million medical masks in Australia within two weeks, but the director of a company that supplies more than 500 Australian hospitals said “most hospitals” were only days away from running out.

The owner of one Brisbane GP clinic that treats 150 patients a day said she had “100 surgical masks in the cupboard” and the situation had become “truly scary”.

The Australian Medical Association in Queensland (AMAQ) said many hospital staff were worried supplies would “run out” and called on Queensland Health to address the “frustration and angst among doctors on the frontline of [the] COVID-19 crisis”.

Doctors confused about how to get more stock

A clinician at one South East Queensland hospital, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the state’s hospitals would run out in “probably about a week”.

“A lot of the healthcare workers are getting to a point where they’re saying, ‘Well, we’ll not work or we’ll self-isolate and go away,’ which will then crash the healthcare system,” the doctor said.

AMAQ president Dilip Dhupelia said doctors were confused about how they could get them, and the State Government needed to “provide clear and transparent communication”.

“Doctors — whether they work in the public or private health sector — are calling for urgent clarification so they can continue to deliver frontline health care to Queenslanders,” Dr Dhupelia said.

Queensland’s chief medical officer Dr Jeannette Young said a “significant number” of extra supplies received last Friday would be “distributed as a matter of urgency”.

But Dr Young said health workers would still have to conserve PPE and “only use … when required and consider how it is used”.

“I am working closely with the Australian Government to increase our stocks of essential supplies, including personal protective equipment,” Dr Young told health workers in a video address yesterday afternoon.

“It is a critical resource in our response and we need to ensure we will have enough for the full duration of the pandemic.

“New factories are coming online and new supplies will be available — no clinician will ever be asked to treat a patient with COVID-19 unless they have the appropriate PPE.”

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GPs have to ‘assume everyone has coronavirus’

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said yesterday the extra masks would follow an additional 160,000 test kits being made available.

Mr Hunt also said Australia would look at having a “whole-of-population telehealth capacity” by March 30, which for many GPs would limit infection risks.

But Dr Maria Boulton, a GP who owns a large medical clinic in Windsor in Brisbane’s inner north that cares for 15,000 patients, said the situation for most GPs had become dire.

“I think the situation in Queensland is getting to the point where you have to assume that everyone has coronavirus,” Dr Boulton said.

She said that meant for every patient “technically in an ideal world, you would use a mask — and that should be an N95, not a surgical mask”, as well as a full-sleeve gown with a hood, googles, gloves and face shield.

But Dr Boulton said her practice, which sees 150 patients a day, had only “100 surgical masks in the cupboard”, along with some N95 masks she secured from Bunnings in early February.

“We are pivoting to phone consults, but normal medical life still goes on and we’ll still need to do wound dressings and vaccinate babies,” Dr Boulton said.

“What worries us is that you have to treat everyone as if I they are carrying it or incubating it and don’t know it yet, so technically you should be wearing PPE for everyone.

“And many, many GPs are out because they’ve gone through their stock [and] they can’t get any more.

“I’m also thinking about my receptionist, my nurses, my colleagues in the hospitals. They’re all stepping up and putting their lives at risk and with inadequate equipment — it’s truly scary.”

Theft of hospital supplies

A medical supplies company director, speaking on condition of anonymity, said hospitals were also having to deter theft of their own supplies amid a worldwide shortage of PPE stocks.

“[People are] stealing things from hospitals — hospitals have had to put their masks under lock and key, pallets of hand sanitiser are going missing from hospitals,” the director said.

The director said the company had 10 million masks on order from a manufacturer in China but could not yet get them flown into Australia, and warned prices would rise.

“The logistics are tricky. The freight costs now are tripling because less planes are flying. There will be a roll-on with the pricing of the masks — old world pricing is gone,” the director said.

Coronavirus ‘will live on any surface for days’

Dr Boulton said governments needed to bolster PPE stocks by “tapping big-business people that know how to do things, and do them quickly and get it done”.

She said the PPE shortage was the main hurdle for more widespread testing for COVID-19.

“There’s chatter that they’re going to expand that [testing] criteria, which is good because I think that there’s a lot of community spread that’s going on without being diagnosed,” she said.

“If you’re going to be close up with [patients], if you’re going to be examining them, looking in their throat, listening to their chest, you need to be wearing an N95 mask, which is also called a respirator.

“The coronavirus will live on any surface for days — it will live on your hair, your skin and your clothes — so you need a gown for full sleeves, hopefully with a hoodie to cover your hair.

“You need goggles, you need gloves, and a lot of people overseas are also wearing a face shield on top of all of that, and then you’re technically meant to change it after every patient.

“Plus, you also need to sterilise or clean whatever equipment you use so you have to wipe your stethoscope, your desk, the chair, etc.”

Dr Boulton said her local primary health network had offered her two N95 masks if she agreed to make her practice a fever clinic.

“Two masks would do two patients, that’s it — they don’t have any stock of gowns, goggles, gloves,” she said.



















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