What is personal protective equipment? And why there isn’t enough

Wednesday, 8th April 2020, 1:48 pm
Updated Wednesday, 8th April 2020, 1:53 pm
Protective equipment can help to prevent the spread of infection (Photo: Shutterstock)
Protective equipment can help to prevent the spread of infection (Photo: Shutterstock)

As coronavirus is highly contagious, the government has urged the UK to follow strict social distancing measures to help minimise infection.

The virus can easily spread from person to person via small droplets which are released in a cough, sneeze or exhale, or by touching an object or surface where droplets have landed.

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Infection is then spread when people touch their eyes, nose or mouth, after coming into contact with an infected surface - making the need for protective equipment highly important.

What is PPE?

PPE stands for personal protective equipment, which is designed to protect a person’s health and safety.

Equipment can include aprons, gloves, eye protection such as visors, masks, and respiratory protective equipment.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has emphasised the importance of appropriate use of PPE, particularly among health care workers, as they regularly come into contact with sick patients.

The UK government has issued guidance on the safest level of PPE to protect NHS health care workers, specifying the type of equipment that should be worn.

What PPE should I be wearing?

The guidance states that any clinician working in a hospital, primary care or community care setting, within two metres of a suspected or confirmed coronavirus patient, should wear an apron, gloves, surgical mask and eye protection, based on the risk.

Those who don’t work in a health care setting are not currently advised to use PPE, such as masks and gloves, unless they are displaying symptoms - although they can still be worn as a precaution.

The WHO is currently only advising those who are sick and showing symptoms of coronavirus, such as coughing or sneezing, to wear a mask.

If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are caring for someone with a suspected coronavirus infection.

The WHO emphasises that wearing a mask is only effective if it is combined with frequent hand washing with soap and water, and an alcohol-based hand rub.

Wearing a mask is also only effective if you know how to use and dispose of it properly.

Why is there not enough PPE?

Health care workers have been faced with a shortage of PPE, forcing many staff to treat patients without sufficient protection.

More than 100 medics in Scotland have signed a letter to the Scottish Government expressing concerns over the lack of protective equipment, claiming frontline workers are risking their lives because they do not have suitable aprons, masks and eye protection.

Dr Shahzad Hanif, a GP who co-ordinated the open letter, said on BBC’s Good Morning Scotland: "It's not just the quantity of PPE, which the government has so far been focused on, but it's the quality that we feel is simply not adequate to provide enough protection for us.

"There are certainly signs that the quantity of protective equipment is certainly coming through now, certainly into primary care where I work and messages I have had from secondary care echo that - that's less of a concern to us now, to be honest.

"It's more the quality of the equipment that we're more anxious about now."

The Scottish Government claims the protection of medical staff is its highest priority and insisted there are new measures to ensure the right PPE is available "with the highest possible urgency".

The UK government has not acknowledged an equipment shortage, but has said there are distribution issues that have contributed to the lack of PPE.

How can I stay protected?

The WHO emphasises the importance of frequent hand washing to help protect against contracting the virus, as well as maintaining social distancing.

The most effective ways to stay safe are to regularly wash your hands with soap and water, cover any coughs or sneezes with the bend of your elbow or in a tissue, and maintain a two metre distance from people who are coughing or sneezing.

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