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Frontline health workers share their concerns and impact of the pandemic’s first wave

Frontline health workers share their concerns and impact of the pandemic’s first wave

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

They’ve been described as the ‘true heroes’ of the pandemic, Australia’s frontline healthcare workers who’ve put their own health and safety on the line to care for our COVID-19 sufferers.

While it’s well documented that healthcare workers are at high occupational risk of contracting COVID, there’s no publicly available national data on healthcare worker infections. There has, however, been some excellent jurisdictional data.

One study noted government data, reporting that, “As of 12 May 2021, over 3,500 healthcare workers in Victoria had tested positive to COVID-19, representing around 17% of the state’s cases. Some 70% of these infections in healthcare workers were acquired through work.”

COVID impact on frontline health workers

That study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZJPH), titled ‘Work-based concerns of Australian frontline healthcare workers during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic’, has brought to attention the concerns of nurses, paramedics and doctors who worked during Australia’s first COVID-19 ‘wave’.

Researchers from Edith Cowan University surveyed nearly 600 frontline workers between 16-30 April 2020.

Regarding Australia’s ‘first wave’ of COVID-19 (or SARS-CoV-2), the researchers targeted answers to the following:

  1. “To what extent were doctors, nurses and paramedics concerned about contracting SARS-CoV-2?”
  2. “What factors exacerbated concerns?”
  3. “Did the extent of concern differ between doctors, nurses and paramedics?”

Key survey findings

Among the responses were,

  • “Two-thirds of participants felt it was likely they would contract SARS-CoV-2 at work”;
  • “Half the participants suggested Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplies were inadequate for them to safely perform their job”; and
  • “One-third of participants suggested they were dissatisfied with their employers’ communication of COVID-19 related information.”

“Of the entire sample, 98% suggested they were continuing to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of completing the survey, 21% reported they had been tested for SARS-CoV-2.”

Another article by the same authors, published in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, asked (during the same time period as the ANZJPH study) about healthcare workers’ feelings of obligation to their own health, their families’ health, and the possibly conflicting obligation to attend work in a SARS-CoV-2 outbreak setting. 75% of respondents, said that they had contemplated this issue. A large (42%) portion conveyed that, since onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, their willingness to work had decreased.

Additionally, only 65% of the healthcare workers surveyed agreed that it’s allowable to have infectious disease exposure risks in a healthcare work setting.

Protecting loved ones

“While 40% of participants felt it was likely other members of their household would contract the virus, only 26% had taken measures to self-isolate from their family.”

  • “I moved away from my husband and son. I’m now living alone and not visiting them. (Nurse)
  • I haven’t hugged my family in months. (Paramedic)
  • My children are currently in isolation with their grandparents. (Nurse)”

“Only 15% (n=87) of all participants were confident their workplace had adequate PPE stock should a surge in SARS-CoV-2 positive patients occur. Doctors were less confident than nurses (p=0.05) and paramedics (p<0.001). Nearly half (47%) of all participants did not feel their workplace was doing everything possible to protect their wellbeing, with doctors less confident than nurses (p<0.001) and paramedics (p<0.001).”

“Medical doctors were more likely to report being tested compared to both nurses (40% vs. 22% respectively; p=0.001) and paramedics (40% vs 15% respectively; p<0.001). Nurses were also more likely to report that they had been tested compared to paramedics (22% vs 15% respectively; p=0.022). Of those that were tested, no participant reported a positive test result.”

“Participants were more likely to suggest they had been exposed to risk of SARS-CoV-2 at work compared to outside of work (53% vs 14% respectively; p<0.001). No professional group was more likely to report probable exposure”.

“More than half (53%) of all participants were personally concerned about becoming infected with SARS-CoV-2, with the level of concern not differing across the professional groups. Of greater concern for participants than personal infection were colleagues being exposed to patients with the virus (71% of participants), fear of exposing their own patients to the virus through transmission (63% of participants) and fear of exposing members of their household (80%).”

“While 40% of participants felt it was likely other members of their household would contract the virus, only 26% (n=151) had undertaken measures to self-isolate from their family.”

“More than one-third (34%) of participants were dissatisfied with their employer’s communication to staff throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The most prominent theme was a lack of information coming through from employers (n=72) surrounding COVID-19 policies or procedures.”

“In contrast, however, there were a number of participants (n=62) who reported they had received too much information and were experiencing information overload.”


The ANZJPH article concludes: “It is clear a not insubstantial proportion of our frontline healthcare worker doctors, nurses and paramedics feared exposure to the virus during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.

“Lack of access to PPE, to the extent that some clinicians chose to don homemade PPE alternatives, seemed the prominent contributing factor. These concerns were at times further exacerbated by poor communication from management surrounding updated information and protocols.

“Medical doctors seemed to be consistently more concerned about exposure to SARS-CoV-2 infection, access to PPE and communication practices from management than nurses, and particularly paramedics.”


Footnote: The ANZJPH article ‘Work-based concerns of Australian frontline healthcare workers during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic’ was jointly authored by Michella Hill, Erin Smith, Brennen Mills

Image: SJ Objio/Unsplash

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