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Victorian coronavirus cases in ICU include Northern Health doctor in his 30s

ABC News logo ABC News 31/07/2020 By state political reporter Bridget Rollason and staff
a person wearing a blue shirt: Healthcare workers have been expressing concern throughout the pandemic about access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and full training in its use. (Rawpixel: Chanikarn Thongsupa, file photo) © Provided by ABC News Healthcare workers have been expressing concern throughout the pandemic about access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and full training in its use. (Rawpixel: Chanikarn Thongsupa, file photo)

A young Melbourne doctor is one of at least three Victorian healthcare workers who have been in intensive care after catching coronavirus at work, the ABC understands.

A Northern Health spokesperson said a Northern Hospital emergency department doctor tested positive to COVID-19 and was in a stable condition in the Northern Hospital ICU.

"Out of respect for the patient and family we cannot provide further comment," the statement said.

The man is in his 30s and caught COVID-19 at work, the ABC understands.

The ABC also understands a GP in his 30s was intubated at the Royal Melbourne Hospital after catching the virus at a COVID-19 screening clinic, while a 53-year-old personal care worker from St Basils aged care centre in Fawkner was in ICU at the Austin Hospital.

The St Basil's worker has been moved out of ICU and is recovering, the Health Workers Union confirmed on Friday.

The current status of the GP in his 30s has not been confirmed.

It comes as a South Australian paramedic who travelled to Melbourne to help with COVID-19 swabbing has tested positive to coronavirus.

A total of 1,030 Victorian healthcare workers have contracted coronavirus since the pandemic began, including 614 active cases.

The ABC has been told 108 staff at The Royal Melbourne Hospital have tested positive for COVID-19 and about 300 staff are currently furloughed.

Healthcare workers demand better PPE

It comes after doctors, paramedics and patient transfer staff claimed they had been put at unacceptable risk and demanded better protective equipment at work.

The Victorian Ambulance Union has written to the Premier requesting "N95" masks be made mandatory when caring for all coronavirus patients, after some staff had been treating and transporting more than a dozen aged care residents suspected of having the virus each day.

The N95 masks are tighter fitting and more protective than the standard surgical masks.

"We fear that being in such close proximity to patients in a confined space for our members in the back of an ambulance is just too higher risk, which is why we need the more protective masks," union secretary Danny Hill said.

"Our members are transferring between 10 to 15 patients in a shift with suspected COVID."

Ambulance Victoria's executive director of clinical operations, Mick Stephenson, said paramedics wore a N95 mask when responding to a cardiac arrest and for every case where an aerosol-generating procedure (AGP), including intubation, was being performed.

"For all other patient interactions, PPE consisting of gloves, protective eyewear and a surgical mask is the minimum requirement," he said.

"AV paramedics all carry N95 masks and they may choose to wear them if that makes them comfortable."

Fear of infection 'never far' from hospital workers' thoughts

Melbourne emergency physician Stephen Parnis said every health worker including cleaners, orderlies, administrators, doctors and nurses, were concerned about catching the virus at work.

"It is a concern, a worry for all of us, it is never far from our thoughts," Dr Parnis said.

Dr Parnis, who is a former Australian Medical Association Victoria branch president, said he felt the state had "no choice" but to enter a harder lockdown.

He said it was clear that the current level of lockdown had prevented the "absolute catastrophe" of thousands of cases each day, but the numbers were still not "safe or acceptable".

"My sense, as a senior hospital doctor, is that we have to go harder, we have to do so now and we really need to use the only tool we have in the toolbox to drive the numbers down and that is increased levels of isolation," Dr Parnis said.

"And that's going to hurt, the second wave has been harder to deal with than the first one, but we have no choice.

"In the absence of a vaccine, we only can reduce these numbers by reducing transmission."

He said he felt access to protective personal equipment for doctors was better than it had been a few months ago and the focus had now turned to emergency research about the different protection offered by N95 masks compared to surgical masks.

"Every health worker is interested in that notion of doing things as safely as possible and where appropriate, we that know the use of N95 masks that are properly fitted, in those areas where you are dealing very closely with COVID-positive patients, is something that I think we all regard as a very important priority," he said.

Emergency physicians back calls for N95 masks

In a statement, the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine joined calls for better access to N95 masks to better protect healthcare workers.

The college's president John Bonning said he found it "deeply distressing" to learn of the emergency doctor in his 30s who was "gravely ill" with coronavirus in ICU.

"Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with the doctor concerned, their family, friends and colleagues, as they are with all healthcare workers affected by this terrible virus," he said.

"We are all hoping for their recovery."

He said the college was "deeply concerned" by the number of infections among healthcare workers.

"These risks are further exacerbated by the lack of inpatient beds currently facing many hospitals and the long periods of time that patients wait in emergency departments for an inpatient bed," he said.

"We need to understand more about how and where these infections are occurring, including through greater transparency and reporting of official data.

"All healthcare workers have a right to be safe at work, and this needs to be at the very top of the priority list for governments, health departments, healthcare systems and hospitals.

"We need the best protection available, including consistent PPE guidelines and reliable access to N95 masks and face shields."

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