Frontline Birmingham workers ready to upgrade ‘super-masks’ as Omicron surges through hospitals

City hospitals reeling from a surge in COVID-19 cases among staff and patients are believed to be the first locals to make the more protective FFP3 surgical mask ‘standard’ for all frontline workers.

The Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust is to take the final call this week on the plan in a desperate bid to reduce staff absenteeism and reduce the transmission of the more infectious Omicron variant inside their wards at City and Sandwell hospitals. At present, there is an outbreak in seven wards of the hospitals.

More than one in nine employees are currently absent from work, putting pressure on already exhausted colleagues.

The government still insists that standard blue surgical masks are sufficient to protect most healthcare workers, with only those in direct close contact with known COVID patients expected to switch to higher-grade protection.

But doctors and nursing leaders have campaigned for an upgrade – some since the start of the pandemic in 2020 – arguing that staff illness and transmission inside hospitals could be dramatically reduced if staff had high-grade protection. .

Read more: Birmingham fears ‘incredibly difficult’ fortnight ahead, as O’Micron hits hospitals

The British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Nursing, the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA) and the Doctors Association UK are all behind the renewed call for action.

“It is extremely urgent at this critical point of the pandemic – a matter of life and death,” said Prof Raymond Agius, acting chairman of the BMA’s Occupational Health Committee earlier this week.

Today, speaking to Birmingham Live, Sandwell and West Birmingham Trust chief executive Richard Beaken said a decision would be made by the end of this week.

“National guidance gives us latitude to upgrade the protective equipment we give to our nursing and medical staff in certain cases and under certain circumstances.

“We think we are close to that trigger point in terms of staff absenteeism and the number of COVID patients in the hospital.”

A move to FFP3 respiratory masks is now on the cards in all hospital patient areas.

The hospital currently has a staff absenteeism rate of 13.5% – more than double the normal rate, he said.

Dr. Sarab Claire, left, in a standard surgical mask outside City Hospital last year, and Dr. Nick Sherwood, pictured in an FFP3 respiratory mask. Staff treating Kovid patients inside the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit wear additional protective equipment.

“This puts an enormous amount of pressure on employees to fill those vacant shifts, and they are coping well with less optimal staffing levels. I am very proud of them.”

But the impact on services is starting to show.

The trust’s chairman, Sir David Nicholson, the former chief executive of NHS England, warned hospitals locally would face a “very difficult fortnight”.

Nearly every bed in hospitals is full – including the 110 additional beds introduced as part of the winter plan – and it is expected that the high rate of cases in the community will continue to translate into more hospital admissions.

But so far hospitals have been able to resist the cancellation of elective surgeries or other urgent work, said Mr Beaken, who have maintained their day and night operations despite the surge.

More than 180 COVID-positive in-patients, as well as another 50 patients who have COVID contacts, are being treated at the hospital. Most are in hospital for other reasons – only 13% were admitted with COVID as the primary cause – but the impact on nursing and medical services is greater.

Richard Beaken, CEO, Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust
Richard Beaken, CEO, Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust

Asked if he would like to see a mask upgrade soon, he said: “There are differing opinions but the majority who know what they are talking about say that if it was FFP3 we would have staff. There would be less transmission between and the patient.

“But this trust, and all trusts in Birmingham and the Black Country, have followed national guidance (of the pandemic) from the start.”

What is FFP3 Mask and why is it better?

NHS guidance states that FFP3 respirator masks are only required for ‘medium and high-risk care routes where aerosol generating procedures are performed’ as part of COVID-19 personal protective equipment.

The FFP3 is a tightly fitted mask that offers much greater resistance to airborne particles than the readily available fluid resistant surgical masks, which are now loosely fitted and routinely used by the public.

Medical workers are required by law to personally ‘fit test’ their masks.

Some staff find them annoying, and while there have been issues around fit, especially for women, masks are often not designed for thin faces. (FFP3 manufacturers strive to supply the male-dominated industrial, construction, and chemical industries).

A study from the University of Cambridge focused on Addenbrook’s hospital, published in July, suggested that FFP3 masks offer ‘the most likely 100 percent protection against infection on wards’.

Study author Chris Illingworth, an infectious disease expert, wrote: ‘Once FFP3 masks were introduced, the number of cases exposed to Covid-19 wards decreased – in fact, our model shows that The FFP3 mask may have zeroed in on ward-based infections. ,

The research concluded that the use of fluid-resistant surgical masks is “inadequate” to protect health care workers.

For the latest availability of vaccines locally, see NHS Birmingham and Solihull vaccination website here, or Black Country and West Birmingham Vaccination Website,

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