A social care campaigner is calling on the Welsh Government to urgently invest in higher grade PPE to defend against the new coronavirus variant sweeping care homes.
Glyn Williams, a member of the Care Forum Wales Council, has grave concerns about the ability of the current visors and masks worn by care workers to provide protection against the more transmissible mutant strain of the disease.
Mr Williams said a huge number of care homes were now battling infections – despite keeping the virus out for the past nine months.
He accused the Welsh Government of ignoring its own advisors by failing to invest in superior personal protective equipment which better prevents airborne Covid particles from entering the nose, mouth and eyes.
Mr Williams said the change in the ‘spike protein’ in the new Covid-19 variant appears to be outsmarting our bodies natural defences, possibly increasing the risk of infection through eyes. It is likely that small amounts of the previous variant of Covid have been getting past our current PPE, but unable to attach to the cells in our eyes.
According to Mr Williams, the Welsh Government’s own Tactical Advisory Group (TAG) had stated that better protection could be achieved by “higher performance face coverings and masks”, especially in settings more vulnerable to the disease.
He said: “Our current PPE level is based on the evidence in March, indicating that covid transmitted in large droplets. The recommended protection for droplet protection is a surgical mask and splash eye protection such as a visor.
“The Government advice changed a couple of months ago, telling us that Covid builds up in airborne plumes and for us to ensure that enclosed spaces have plenty of ventilation etc.
“The official manual requires the use of FFP3 masks and eye protection for infectious agents spread by the airborne route.
“If you walk into a smoky room with a visor and surgical mask, the smoke will get into your eyes mouth and nose,” explained Mr Williams.
“Surely, if you walk into a plume of Covid then it will similarly get into your eyes, mouth and nose.
“It’s not rocket science – if you have something more contagious, then you need to do much more to protect people.”
“We are nine months into this and FFP3 masks have been required for some time– why were they not preparing for it? Why have they let it get to the stage where we have a much more transmissible version of the virus before even looking at this?”.
“The advice seems to have been totally disregarded and the only reason I can think of is that it would cost too much to supply FFP3 across the NHS and social care in Wales – and also there could be problems sourcing it.
“The change in the new variant, as far as we know or understand, is that it makes Covid easier to attach to the cells. Surely, it makes sense to actually protect ourselves more thoroughly by preventing even the smallest amount entering our eyes, nose or mouth?
“If staff are infected and pre-symptomatic, FFP3 masks will help prevent us accidentally breathing plumes of Covid onto our residents and infecting them.
“The Welsh Government need to look to the NIPCM again to ensure our current PPE is going to be adequate enough.”
Mario Kreft, chair of Care Forum Wales, which represents nearly 500 indpendent providers said: “Managers and staff are terrified of the capabilities of this new variant of the disease and deserve the highest possible protection while working in a vulnerable environment.
“It would be foolish to be anything but concerned at the dangers this new strain poses, even amidst a vaccination programme.
“It has ramped up the risk of community transmission to a whole new level with 70% of new cases in North Wales being attributed to the new variant.
“Our magnificent frontline care home staff , who have battled heroically to keep their residents safe across Wales, all live in the community and therein lies the problem, especially as threequarters of those who catch it do not have any symptoms.
“We are calling on the Welsh Government to heed the warnings of its own advisors who raised the risks of airborne transmission some time ago, before this new threat emerged.
“The rate at which Covid is spreading, and aggressively attacking our cells, is deeply worrying. It is vital the Government acts fast before many more lives are lost.”
Mr Williams, who owns Gwyddfor Care Home in Bodedern, near Holyhead, which has remained Covid-free since the start of the health crisis and has recently seen all residents and staff vaccinated, said the sector was facing further uncertainty and anxiety over the emergence of the new Brazilian variant of the disease.
“If it’s not here already, it’s likely to get here soon and there will be even more changes to the spike protein which could possibly get around the immune system, we don’t know,” he said.
“Our PPE was designed in accordance with the evidence presented by the Government at the start – that was when Covid was transmitted primarily by droplets from coughing and spluttering.
“Visors and surgical masks were sufficient then but now we know that’s not the only form of transmission and that it builds up in the air, transmitted by small particles. Our PPE wasn’t designed for that, it was designed for droplets much bigger.
“As an organisation we have raised this with Public Health Wales but they are telling us there is no evidence our PPE is inadequate.”
Mr Williams said he knew of a number of care homes that had remained Covid-free throughout the pandemic that were now being rapidly infected.
“There has got to be a reason for this, it’s not because their infection control standards are any different,” he said.
“They have defended themselves against Covid for a long time but something has happened and these defences are no longer working.
“In one home 95% of staff are isolating. We are getting to the stage where not enough social care staff are available to maintain these homes.
“We simply do not know how to protect ourselves and we are not getting any firm answers. The stress our staff are under is horrendous. We are battling something we just don’t know how to battle.
“We urgently need investment in more adequate levels of protection.”