Melbourne nurses banned from wearing their own N95 masks

Staff working on a ward at Box Hill Hospital where a patient and a nurse could have been infectious with coronavirus have been told they are not allowed to use N95 masks as a precaution against the disease.

The hospital outbreak grew to four on Friday, as another staff member was confirmed to have the infection, adding to the two nurses and one patient who tested positive this week.

Hospital staff are not allowed to buy their own masks.Credit:Bloomberg

Health authorities are yet to establish how the outbreak started, but leaked emails between the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and hospital officials suggest a patient in an acute ward earlier tested negative to coronavirus before testing positive to the disease on Wednesday.

The email exchange reveals that the hospital’s supply of N95 masks have been reserved for those working with the highest-risk patients and others are not permitted to wear them “even if they buy one”.

The first two staff who became infected had worked with coronavirus patients during their incubation period, however in an email seen by The Age, Eastern Health’s director of workplace relations said it wasn’t clear how they had caught the disease as “both were wearing appropriate [personal protective equipment]".

One of the infected staff had also worked on the acute ward at the weekend, when it’s possible they may have been infectious before developing symptoms but the email argued other ward staff were not required to use N95 masks and were not allowed to supply their own as the hospital wasn’t able to control the quality of masks brought in.

On Friday, Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton confirmed that another staff member at the hospital had tested positive to coronavirus. He said all staff were being tested and close contacts asked to quarantine.

“We are down to 19 active cases in health staff of any kind … but I don't want to see another one,” he said.

The hospital has recorded 24 coronavirus infections of staff members during the pandemic. So far, 3559 health care workers have been infected with COVID-19 across the state.

Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Victorian branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick called for all staff working in clinical areas of hospitals to be given fitted N95 masks until health facilities were free of COVID-19 patients.

“We also want to see all health facilities start fit checking and fit testing N95 masks for all new staff as part of their orientation when they start,” she said.

“ANMF does not support staff bringing their own PPE of unknown and untested quality into work.”

An earlier email from a nursing union official said the union had received information that nurses working in the affected acute ward at Box Hill were not permitted to wear N95 masks “even if they buy one for $7 themselves at a pharmacist.”

This is in line with Victorian health department guidelines, which say that N95 masks only need to be provided to a select group of workers in higher risk roles, including those caring for patients on COVID wards.

Victorian Australian Medical Association president Associate Professor Julian Rait said he did not see an issue with people bringing in their own N95 mask, on the condition that it had been fit tested, but he also raised concerns about the slow implementation of fit testing across the state’s hospitals.

The state government has called for fit tests of masks for all staff working in COVID wards by the end of this month, amid evidence that many popular brands stocked at Melbourne’s hospital don’t properly fit most people.

Eastern Health, which oversees Box Hill Hospital, refused to answer any questions on the outbreak, including how many staff had been furloughed or why they were yet to begin fit testing of high-risk workers.

The health service deferred all enquiries to the health department.

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