An NHS hospital that upgraded the type of face masks worn by staff on its COVID wards saw cases fall by up to 100%, new research suggests.
Staff working on coronavirus wards at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge stopped using fluid resistant surgical masks (FRSMs) and replaced them with filtering face piece 3 (FFP3) ones in December 2020.
They made the decision, contrary to official guidance, based on their own staff testing data.
Addenbrooke’s, which is part of the University of Cambridge, has been testing its doctors and nurses for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, regardless of whether they have symptoms.
To begin with, data suggested that those working on COVID wards were 47 times more likely to contract the virus than staff working elsewhere in the hospital.
The testing programme also indicated that staff caring for coronavirus patients were at a much greater risk of infection even when using the recommended personal protective equipment (PPE).
This saw Addenbrooke’s infection control committee upgrade the style of face mask worn by COVID staff.
Before the upgrade, cases were higher among COVID ward staff in seven out of the eight weeks analysed by researchers.
But after the upgrade, the rate of infection across COVID and non-COVID wards was largely the same.
Until recently, the UK Infection Prevention Control cell (IPC) only recommended using FFP3 masks when carrying out aerosol-generating procedures – such as inserting a breathing tube into a patient’s windpipe.
But now the IPC requires NHS organisations to carry out their own risk assessments and use FFP3 respirators where they deem appropriate.
The Addenbrooke’s research has not been peer-reviewed, but is being released early to share the information as quickly as possible.
Dr Michael Weekes, from Cambridge University’s department of medicine, said: “Our data suggests there’s an urgent need to look at the PPE offered to healthcare workers on the frontline.
“Upgrading the equipment so that FFP3 masks are offered to all healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19 could reduce the number of infections, keep more hospital staff safe and remove some of the burden on already stretched healthcare services caused by absence of key staff due to illness.”
Dr Chris Illingworth, from the MRC biostatistics unit at Cambridge University, added: “Once FFP3 respirators were introduced, the number of cases attributed to exposure on COVID-19 wards dropped dramatically – in fact, our model suggests that FFP3 respirators may have cut ward-based infection to zero.”
Rose Gallagher, professional lead for infection prevention and control at the Royal College of Nursing says the data reflects the union’s repeated calls for better PPE for NHS staff.