Health staff want automatic WorkCover rights, as new mask concerns emerge
Doctors, paramedics and other healthcare workers want the Andrews government to guarantee that healthcare workers infected with coronavirus will automatically qualify for WorkCover compensation, as the sector warns it is being put at unnecessary risk of exposure.
Healthcare staff now represent more than 14 per cent of active Victorian cases, with 2414 coronavirus cases detected in this group since the pandemic began.
Dr Leah Kaminsky is concerned about the risks she is being exposed to: “It’s like Russian roulette, I just don’t know who is going to walk in.”Credit:Jason South
More than 3000 healthcare workers have now signed a letter to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt saying personal protective equipment and safety measures are below standard and failing to provide adequate protection.
Doctors and nurses have told The Age they have been given only surgical masks to care for suspected coronavirus patients, been forced to tape ill-fitting masks to their faces and rely on donated gloves and masks in some instances.
Victorian Ambulance Union secretary Danny Hill wrote to the state’s Workplace Safety Minister Jill Hennessy in April, asking her to create a new "presumptive" right for those on the healthcare front line to automatic WorkSafe compensation.
Mr Hill said the government should make coronavirus a "proclaimed disease", as was the case for firefighters who dealt with asbestos and got sick with some types of cancer.
"Firefighters don’t have to justify that on this date and in this place you breathed it in," he said. "All they have to prove is that they were engaged in the act of firefighting."
He said making coronavirus for healthcare workers a proclaimed disease would save "the individual worker jumping through hoops". At least 33 paramedics and private ambulance drivers have tested positive for COVID-19.
A spokeswoman for Ms Hennessy said all workers who contracted coronavirus at work were entitled to claim for workers compensation, and that WorkSafe had so far accepted all claims by healthcare workers with a confirmed coronavirus diagnosis.
Dr Benjamin Veness, however, said it wasn’t always possible for healthcare workers to show precisely where they had acquired coronavirus infections, even though the workplace was a high-risk setting and likely to be the source.
"From the perspective of someone who works in hospitals, there are so many opportunities to get infected there," he said. "Healthcare settings are poorly ventilated, are full of sick and sometimes behaviourally-disturbed patients and contain many staff moving about in close proximity to other people."
He said it was crucial that healthcare staff with COVID-19 should not have the added stress of not knowing if their WorkCover claim would be successful.
The Western Australian government recently passed legislation setting a presumption that all healthcare workers who acquired coronavirus had been infected at work.
Nurse Rhonda Milner is among the healthcare workers affected by coronavirus, acquiring it at a Werribee aged care home. Forced to spend 23 days in isolation, she went more than four weeks without pay.
"I live by myself so it has been desperately lonely," said Ms Milner, who has recovered but has started a WorkSafe claim because of possible long-term impacts. "[It’s] a very unknown disease, and we don’t know what’s going to happen to us six months down the track."
WorkSafe figures show that, despite the thousands of infections, only 81 healthcare workers with coronavirus have made successful compensation claims.
It comes as the recent petition to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt from healthcare workers saw hundreds of individual complaints from Victoria.
One doctor said they were asked not to wear a surgical mask while seeing patients. Another said that as a senior doctor they were told they should only wear the minimum protective equipment required, so as not to send an unwanted example to junior staff.
"It was stressed that consultants especially should not wear PPE above the grade determined for the patient encounter, as others take cues from consultants," they said.
A nurse said they were forced to tape surgical masks to their face, while another said three nurses on their ward had tested positive, and they were only provided with surgical masks to care for suspected COVID-19 patients.
Dr Leah Kaminsky runs a doctor’s surgery in Elwood and said while GPs were expected to be "heroes" in the fight against coronavirus, many felt scared and unsupported.
The clinic has received about a dozen high-grade masks from the local GP division, but Dr Kaminsky said there was no fitting offered for the masks and the clinic had been left to source its own plastic visors, goggles and gowns, often at inflated prices.
At times, they had relied on donated goods, including masks and gloves from a local beauty therapist who had gone out of business.
She said while her concerns had led her to rely more on phone consultations, some patients needed to be seen face to face – and some still presented with coronavirus symptoms, despite screening. "It’s like Russian roulette, I just don’t know who is going to walk in," she said.
Australian Medical Association Victoria president Julian Rait said he was still hearing hospitals were lagging behind in providing critical protective gear such as N95 face masks, higher-grade masks recommended for caring for coronavirus patients.
"There are still pockets, like Peninsula Health, where there are issues with stock," he said.
Frankston Hospital, which is run by Peninsula Health, is grappling with a coronavirus outbreak, with some staff saying they haven't been given access to N95 masks despite repeated requests.
Peninsula Health chief executive Felicity Topp said that Frankston Hospital was experiencing an increased number of positive COVID-19 cases. Peninsula Health declined to comment on whether all staff were given access to N95 masks, and did not respond to requests about how many infections had been detected.
It had been earlier claimed that only a small percentage, up to 15 per cent, of Victoria’s infected healthcare workers had acquired the disease at work. This claim was rubbished by infectious diseases expert Raina MacIntyre.
Professor MacIntyre said if that was the case, the healthcare workers had "more than double the risk" of contracting the disease in the community compared to other Victorians.
"If they got it in the community, their rate should be the same as the rate in the community. That just tells you it has been falsely attributed," she said.
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