*Press Release*

Melbourne, 30 August 2023 — The Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association (VAHPA) has condemned the recent announcement made by NSW Health regarding the downgrading of COVID-19 response measures and the abandonment of mask mandates within healthcare facilities.

VAHPA calls on the Victorian Government to maintain best practice infection control measures in the ongoing fight against COVID-19 within healthcare facilities.

“It is paramount that the current requirement for mask usage in high-risk settings, such as health and aged care facilities, remains in place,” declared VAHPA Executive Officer, Andrew Hewat.

Masks and respirators are proven safeguards in healthcare.

Some 3,000 healthcare workers contracted the virus while on duty in 2020, largely in the period prior to mandated universal wearing of masks in the healthcare setting.

Inpatients acquiring infections during their hospital stays, known as Healthcare Acquired Infections (HAIs) have been associated with the abandonment of masks in healthcare. HAIs have accounted for up to 20% of hospital cases, with a significant number (>10%) resulting in tragic fatalities due to hospital acquired infections.

“This measure puts lives at risk,” said Hewat. “We will return to a situation where patients are afraid to go to hospital, especially those who are medically vulnerable, and consequently they miss out on life saving care.”

VAHPA unequivocally calls upon the Andrews Government to update COVID-19 guidelines, ensuring clear and consistent mandates for health employers, including the continued requirement of masks in all public healthcare settings. Additionally, the association urges the provision of access to the latest COVID-19 vaccine boosters for allied health professionals, prioritized PCR testing as needed, and paid COVID-19 leave for infected individuals.

Authorised by Craig McGregor, Secretary Victorian Allied Health Professionals Association

Quotes attributable to Andrew Hewat:

“Government wants to return to a business-as-usual approach in an unusual and highly stressed healthcare environment.”

“We need our healthcare workers to be fit and healthy so they can look after Victorian patients. It is inexcusable to be infecting patients with COVID-19 or any other pathogen in our hospitals. Mask mandates protect workers, patients and the community.”

“Covid is airborne and spreads while the carrier is asymptomatic. Healthcare workers, patients and visitors all need to be masked in clinical spaces where the virus spreads to reduce the risk of infection.”

“With each lull in the Covid waves, the government peels back another layer of protection. These protections are not being reapplied even when the next wave hits. Masks are the last line of defence for healthcare workers and patients. Abandoning masks in healthcare is reckless and irresponsible and will lead to more illness and death.”

*For media inquiries, please contact:*

Andrew Hewat

VAHPA Executive Office

0427 673 205


**About VAHPA**

VAHPA is the specialist union for Allied Health Professionals in Victoria.

See: https://vahpa.asn.au

**Background Information**

In 2020, the collective efforts of Victorian health unions were pivotal in securing access to high-quality personal protective equipment (PPE), including fit-tested N95 masks, for healthcare workers. The universal implementation of mask mandates since then has played a pivotal role in curbing the incidence of staff and patient infections in subsequent years.

This NSW Health decision places priority populations, including the immunocompromised, transplant recipients, cancer patients, the elderly, children, individuals with disabilities, and Indigenous communities, in the dilemma of choosing between seeking necessary medical care and potential exposure to elevated COVID-19 risks.

The widespread prevalence of COVID-19 within the community does not diminish the imperative for robust airborne infection control measures, particularly within healthcare settings. COVID-19 is distinct from common colds and influenza, exhibiting greater lethality, severe long-term health consequences, and an ongoing trajectory of evolution. A direct comparison of annual mortality underscores the substantial disparities between COVID-19 and influenza.

Source: covidlive.com.au – graph created by Prof Kathy Eagar (@k_eagar)

Despite the public’s gradual return to normalcy, healthcare workers continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. While the focus of society shifts, the healthcare system remains under considerable strain, with COVID-19 remaining a substantial menace to public health.

Notably, on August 10, 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the EG.5.1 variant as a variant of interest, followed by the alert regarding the emergence of the BA.2.86 variant on August 17. The WHO’s call to maintain vigilance, testing, and reporting underscores the persistent global threat posed by COVID-19. The Northern Hemisphere’s current experience with a new wave of COVID-19, marked by surging hospitalisations, resonates as these nations grapple with the consequences of ending mask mandates in healthcare settings.

Source: ourworldindata.org

The WHO’s advice and the firsthand experiences of North American and European countries emphasize the imperative to remain vigilant and treat COVID-19 as an ongoing serious public health concern, crucial for the stability of healthcare services.

While healthcare professionals understandably find prolonged mask usage taxing, they acknowledge the inherent risks within their high-risk work environment and the necessity of safeguarding themselves and their patients. Exploring options such as enhanced air quality, advanced filtration, and the incorporation of Far-UVC sterilizing lights in non-clinical settings could alleviate the burden of mask wearing, while minimizing overreliance on PPE. Emphasizing engineering controls to counter airborne pathogen threats is of paramount importance in protecting both healthcare workers and patients.