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The challenge

Protecting healthcare workers from COVID-19 aerosols

Some surgical procedures produce aerosols.

One of the main ways the COVID-19 virus spreads is via respiratory aerosols and droplets. Humans produce aerosols and droplets by actions such as coughing, sneezing, shouting, and singing. While droplets fall out of the air quickly, aerosols can remain suspended in the air, travelling on air currents.

In the healthcare setting, "aerosol-generating procedures" are, as the name suggests, procedures suspected of producing aerosols. These include intubation, extubation, tracheotomy, and bronchoscopy. The healthcare workers performing these procedures are at greater risk of infection via aerosol transmission.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, guidelines for performing aerosol-generating procedures were based on a small amount of observational data. This lack of evidence meant that patient care was inadvertently being compromised due to the guidelines being overly strict. More research will help ensure the guidelines protect healthcare workers, while also improving patient care.

Our response

Aerosol instrumentation re-deployed to detect aerosols during medical procedures

Measuring aerosols requires specialised instrumentation. Our aerosols team usually measure environmental aerosols related to air quality and climate change in a range of locations around Australia, and in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica aboard research vessels.

When the need arose to measure COVID-19 aerosol in a medical setting, the team's expertise in measuring aerosols in ultra-clean settings meant they could quickly pivot to this new area of research. The team are now using their specialised instrumentation to measure aerosol generation from a range of procedures in a controlled environment, and during surgeries in theatre.

The team is also testing newly developed personal protective equipment (PPE). They are assessing the effectiveness of a personal ventilation hood in an intensive care unit (ICU) under varying conditions (such as breathing, coughing, receiving various oxygen therapies, etc.) for patients with a range of diseases (including COVID, influenza, and tuberculosis).

We are assessing the effectiveness of a personal ventilation hood in an intensive care unit (ICU) under varying conditions.

The team are also working to understand the production of aerosols during a range of activities, such as while exercising at the gym or using wind or brass instruments. This research will help guide the development of COVID-safe practices.

The results

Research-backed PPE and procedures put in place

Our research has provided critical information about exactly how much aerosol is generated during a range of medical procedures. Hospital managers are using this information to develop evidence-backed guidelines to minimise staff exposure to aerosols produced during medical procedures.

Our work has also informed the development of PPE and procedures around the use of PPE that are being used in hospitals across Melbourne. This is helping to ensure the safety of healthcare workers, alleviating their anxiety and improving patient care.

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