The COVID-19 response in Australia has been one of the most effective in the world. But the system is far from perfect.
We are some of the lucky Australians who managed to return home in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flight caps were introduced to ‘manage and maintain quarantine arrangements across the jurisdictions’. So, after boarding a near-empty flight, you can imagine our intrigue about the quarantine controls when we finally touched down in Australia.
As the 35 passengers and 10 staff disembarked the aircraft, we were told to keep our masks and face shields on. But looking around I could see it was not going to make much of a difference.
Many passengers were wearing their masks below their noses. it makes it about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
If you’re required to wear a mask it must cover your nose and mouth, period! Just as we breathe and cough from our mouths, we breathe and sneeze through our noses – both are just as important to cover.
When we arrived at the COVID-19 screening queue, tape was used on the ground to guide social distancing with a staff member responsible for checking and reminding passengers. That part worked.
Then, we encountered a nurse taking temperatures. It's a good idea in principle. But the nurse was only wearing a surgical mask, which protected the passengers from him, but not him from the passengers.
That’s scary, considering how many COVID-19 cases actually come from overseas travellers. If that nurse got COVID-19 from an incoming passenger, he’d go home to his family and spread it.
Boom: the next outbreak is underway.
We noticed similar protective inconsistencies with the police, as we left the airport and made our way to hotel quarantine.
Respirators (not just surgical masks) need to fit the individual’s face and need to be worn properly. It is not effective to hand out any masks that are available and assume it will be okay.
For respirators to work, it is vital that each high-risk worker – that’s the nurses, the police and the quarantine hotel staff – has access to respirators that fit their face shape. They need to shave before putting it on (if they have facial hair) and know how to wear it correctly.
It was awesome to see that the nurses who did our day two and day 10 COVID-19 tests were wearing P2 respirators and eye protection.
Why has this been overlooked?
There’s a bunch of health experts in the Infection Control Expert Group (ICEG) who take and give advice on this sort of thing. There's only one problem: this group is missing a key expert.
Someone who has spent years working with other airborne hazards such as asbestos, silica and welding fumes. Someone who specialises in the protection of worker health. Someone who can develop a personal protection plan to minimise the risk of an outbreak.
Who is this someone? It is an occupational hygienist (I know what you’re thinking — and no, we’re not in dentistry and hand washing is not our only expertise).
As an occupational hygienist myself, we share a passion for protecting workers' health and are all too ready for the call to provide our expert knowledge to help our frontline workers.
Action is needed to fine-tune controls to protect high-risk workers, so we can all travel safely and prevent another outbreak.
The Federal and state governments need to get on board with the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists (AIOH) to iron out the creases in the quarantine system so we can truly say we have world-leading practices. We owe it to our frontline workers, their families, and communities.
Everyone has the right to return home from work healthy and safely so that together we can beat COVID-19.
Candice Dix has worked in the occupational health field for over 11 years and is currently employed as an Occupational Hygiene Specialist within the private sector of Western Australia.
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