A recent article published on the Oxford Academic website (30/9/23) looked into what lessons could and should have been learned on protecting healthcare workers during a pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic exacted a heavy toll on workers, resulting in many deaths and long-term health impacts. While outbreaks of other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS provided important lessons on protecting healthcare workers through measures like respirators, these were largely disregarded globally when COVID-19 struck.
Guidance existing pre-COVID recommended respirators for care of patients with unknown respiratory infections capable of airborne transmission. But many authorities excluded airborne spread in initial COVID precautions, only requiring respirators for “aerosol-generating” procedures. This left most workers unprotected from infectious aerosols.
Some Asian countries implemented stricter protections, having learned from prior outbreaks. But most countries took cues from WHO’s stance downplaying airborne spread, citing masks as sufficient “PPE” despite limited efficacy. Precautionary principles were applied more by occupational hygiene leaders than governmental authorities.
A precautionary approach involves source controls like testing/isolation of likely infectious individuals, pathway controls like ventilation/filtration, and receptor controls like appropriate respirators. This comprehensive strategy is needed for future respiratory disease threats.
Ventilation and other air quality improvements in workplaces and public buildings require major investment. But this cost pales compared to the economic impacts of work-related deaths and long-term COVID disabilities, which will persist for decades.
The pandemic’s onset saw scientific evidence sidelined in favor of assumptions downplaying airborne spread. With heavy consequences, pre-existing guidance on worker protections was disregarded globally. Applying sound occupational hygiene principles remains critical to mitigating current and future risks.
Lessons must be learned to enact reforms addressing the pandemic’s workplace impact. Adequate protections require integrating vaccination with strategies recognizing airborne transmission. This will prepare us for the inevitable next threat, saving lives and avoiding history tragically repeating.
The full article can be read here.