A prominent group of academics is urging the Biden government to move faster and step up measures to protect high-risk personnel from exposure to airborne coronavirus and is pushing for enforceable standards to protect high-risk jobs like healthcare, food processing and prisons .
The researchers say that while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized that the virus can spread through tiny particles in the air, it needs to take “immediate” action to update its guidelines and reduce the risk .
“Now is the opportunity,” said David Michaels, a professor at George Washington University and former director of the Labor Protection Agency.
Changes to curb the spread of the virus could include wider use of N95 masks in the workplace, as well as better ventilation, according to a letter sent to the CDC on Monday.
High-profile signatories include Rick Bright, who was fired from the Trump administration after urging closer attention to science. Michael Osterholm, advisor to the Biden transition team; and Virginia Tech aerosol scientist Linsey Marr.
Current CDC guidelines reflect the initial supply chain crisis the country faced and which has largely eased, the letter said. They also fail to acknowledge months of research that have shown the increased risks for essential workers in various industries.
The letter criticizes current guidelines which state that people outside of the healthcare system should not be given N95 masks and that those masks should also be reserved for workers within the healthcare sector who perform “aerosol generating” procedures such as intubation.
Since these guidelines were drafted, research has shown that fatal outbreaks have occurred in meat packing plants and prisons that are believed to represent aerosol spread. In the healthcare sector, researchers found that workers such as paramedics and emergency room workers were at the highest risk of infection.
“It really bothers me that healthcare workers and key workers who need that extra level of protection have been working with a crisis standard of care and without adequate … respiratory protection for so long,” Bright said in an interview.
Even more recent research, carefully examining a September Covid-19 outbreak at a Boston hospital using “sophisticated” infection control methods, showed that health technicians intercepted a patient’s virus using surgical masks and face shields – a common personal protective device for health care workers for Covid patients. The finding spurred the authors to propose wider use of N95 in hospitals.
KHN and The Guardian have written about the hundreds of more than 3,400 healthcare workers who have died of lust for the Lost on the Frontline project. In many cases, families of many workers raised concerns about PPE and many others were unaware of what a loved one was wearing. Workers’ complaints to government officials about protective equipment, a story on the series, preceded the death of a worker in dozen of cases.
Jane Thomason, senior industrial hygienist at National Nurses United who was not involved in the letter, applauded its contents, saying it reflected many of the concerns raised by nurses over the past year.
To add to the list of concerns, Thomason said the CDC guidelines do not reflect research showing that pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic spread of the virus is common.
Current guidance for hospitals to screen only patients with covid-like symptoms means many slip through with the virus and are cared for by workers with sub-optimal PPE. Thomason said solutions would include universal patient testing and deploying the N95 as the minimum respiratory protection in a hospital.
“The crisis standards created by the CDC essentially serve as a menu for employers to run down to,” she said. “I find it horrific that these are still the same issues a year from now.”
The CDC did not respond on Tuesday evening. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has already announced a thorough review of the agency’s policies based on “the best evidence available,” the letter said.
These guidelines will set a standard that occupational safety regulators can enforce, said Lisa Brosseau, an aerosol scientist at the University of Minnesota who signed the letter. She said the CDC’s recognition that workers need to be protected from breathing the virus will give OSHA more leverage to keep workers safe.
Dr. Donald Milton, professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who signed the letter, said it was time to see how low we can bring virus levels down – so we don’t have to shut the nation down again if there is one another pandemic there.
“There has to be a commitment to find out and do what has to be done so we never have to do this again,” he said.
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