Labour unions condemn use of surgical masks for prolonged periods

Surgical masks
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Labour unions have strongly condemned the use of surgical masks for prolonged periods. This after some healthcare workers raised concerns that they sometimes have to use the same mask for up to five days. They say the overuse of a single mask may be leading to the high infection rate and deaths within the sector.

Healthcare workers fear they are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus due to inadequate PPE supplies. Some say they are forced to wear a single mask for up to five days despite daily interaction with potential COVID positive patients.

One trauma nurse shared her concerns.

“All the frontline workers, we are made to wear masks in an emergency environment where we get COVID patients and PUI patients. That’s one mask and you’ve got to wear it for five days. Now, this serves as being an absolute high risk because obviously contamination purposes. The chances of us getting contaminated is extremely high because you’ve got to remove the mask, put it into a paper bag and reuse it. It’s always been under discussion with the Infection Control Officer. Being in the frontline, you should be given a mask change after every break or when it’s soiled.”

Nurses union, Denosa, has condemned the practice, saying this could be leading to the increase in coronavirus cases amongst frontline workers.

Thousands of doctors and nurses have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic. More than 300 have lost their lives.

Denosa’s Acting General Secretary, Cassim Lekhoathi says Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has given assurance that there is enough protective equipment.

“They must be condemned in the strongest terms because you can’t allow a person to wear a mask for that long and by so doing, you are actually reintroducing infection. No wonder the infection rate has gone so high, especially among frontline workers. You can imagine if you have to wear this mask for a following day; what guarantees are there that, that mask is still durable and it is safe to be used. The minister has given an assurance that there is sufficient protective gear and that no healthcare worker must be exposed to such danger.”

Public Health Specialist at the University of Cape Town, Dr Kerrin Begg, however, says if the mask is not damaged and fits the user well, it will not compromise the safety of the user.

Begg says the continuous use of masks is a global practice due to the high demand of the masks. She says South Africa has practiced this before with TB patients and that this is a measure used to combat the poor supply of masks.

“So, how the reuse happens or how we manage the poor supply and limitation in N95 respirator availability is right across the world.We reuse N95 respirators and the common way that we do that is that we issue five respirators per person for the month and between four to five reuses has been deemed to be appropriate provided that there’s no damage to the respirators. The respirators can be used up to four or five times without compromising protection to the wearer significantly.”

Begg adds that the vast majority of healthcare workers actually contract the virus outside of the workplace.

“When we investigate healthcare worker infections, the vast majority of healthcare worker infections were not contracted at their place of work. The vast majority were contracted as any other member of the population would in their general day-to-day lives or at home or in shopping centres or in socialising or travelling to and from work or in tea rooms when they are at work when they remove their masks or respirators and are then exposed to the virus. So, the evidence is not demonstrating that healthcare workers when they are properly gowned up and with their PPE and when they’re working appropriately that is causing the significant rise.”

South Africa’s healthcare workers are expected to be among the first to receive a vaccine against the coronavirus.

Latest SA stats: