10 Nov 2020

Man in MIQ 'blown away' seeing staff only wearing surgical masks

9:04 am on 10 November 2020

Health workers in New Zealand quarantine hotels are some of the worst protected in the developed world, according to a man in managed isolation who's helped kit out medical staff all over the world.

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File image. Photo: mihalec/123RF

Tim Jones says he predicted the current outbreak when he arrived at his isolation hotel two weeks ago, shocked by the low level of personal protective equipment worn by nurses, defence force personnel and border workers.

He was returning home from Britain after working for four years for a New Zealand-owned, US-based company RPB which provided protective equipment for frontline workers in hospitals in 50 countries, mostly the United States, Britain and Europe.

"In short, New Zealand has been the worst protected for frontline health workers that we have seen," Jones said.

"I guess probably the biggest red flags were when we landed at the border. We only saw surgical masks, including on army people who were on the bus with us so obviously in close proximity, travelling to our managed isolation facility."

He was "completely blown away" to find out from a New Zealand Defence Force contact that even staff who worked in Auckland's Jet Park, where most people have Covid-19, were wearing the most basic surgical masks.

"This was about a week-and-a-half ago and I said 'If that's the case, then it's only a matter of time until a health worker will contract Covid if that's what they're wearing'," he said.

Surgical masks are the common, disposable pleated masks with gaps at the side.

They are most beneficial at protecting other people from Covid-19, rather than stopping the wearer getting it.

At the very least, workers in close contact with returnees should be wearing N95 masks fitted to the user, Jones said.

Health workers who conducted Jones' health checks were good at keeping their distance but mostly wore only surgical masks, with some also wearing protective glasses, he said.

That was risky especially before they knew he was negative for Covid-19, Jones said.

He had been impressed with New Zealand's ability to keep Covid-19 out so was surprised to come home to see something so simple being overlooked.

Vice chief of the Defence Force, Air Vice Marshal Tony Davies told Morning Report he's confident in the gear his teams are using.

"We're pretty confident with the procedures and the equipment that our experts in New Zealand have determined to be appropriate at this time."

He said Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and his team are constantly assessing the appropriateness of the kit used here.

"We do want the best protection for our people and at the moment we need to have confidence that our experts in New Zealand ... are making the right decisions for us."

He said the two members of the Defence Force who have tested positive for Covid-19 were in a meeting together about managed isolation facilities at their accommodation in a conference room. He said they were social distancing at the meeting.

They met in person because some meetings are too challenging to do virtually, he said.

"Hypothetically, when you're dealing with some issues that are sensitive for instance, other meetings where someone might need that in-person support then those types of meetings are simply more effective to do in person."

The close contacts have been identified and they are following standard procedures, he said.

A number of these people are at the Papakura base and Defence Headquarters in Wellington, he said.

N95 masks being considered

The Ministry of Health is urgently looking into whether to use N95 masks at the highest risk facilities, like Jet Park.

Dr Bloomfield said there was growing evidence workers who had contracted the virus at managed isolation hotels may have caught it from transmission through the air.

The Nurses Organisation has been calling for the better level protection, saying it did not know why it was not there already.

It also wants an investigation into how all managed isolation facilities are being run.

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