“One minute it’s an airborne virus, then it’s a droplet virus, and then it’s like nobody really knows…”: Experiences of pandemic PPE amongst Australian healthcare workers
Infection, Disease and Health, November 23, 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.idh.2021.10.005
The SARS–CoV-2 pandemic has challenged health systems globally. A key controversy has been how to protect healthcare workers (HCWs) using personal protective equipment (PPE).
Interviews were performed with 63 HCWs across two states in Australia to explore their experiences of PPE during the SARS–CoV-2 pandemic. Thematic analysis was performed.
Four themes were identified with respect to HCWs’ experience of pandemic PPE: 1. Risk, fear and uncertainty: HCWs experienced considerable fear and heightened personal and professional risk, reporting anxiety about the adequacy of PPE and the resultant risk to themselves and their families. 2. Evidence and the ambiguities of evolving guidelines: forms of evidence, its interpretation, and the perception of rapidly changing guidelines heightened distress amongst HCWs. 3. Trust and care: Access to PPE signified organisational support and care, and restrictions on PPE use were considered a breach of trust. 4. Non-compliant practice in the context of social upheaval: despite communication of evidence-based guidelines, an environment of mistrust, personal risk, and organisational uncertainty resulted in variable compliance.
PPE preferences and usage offer a material signifier of the broader, evolving pandemic context, reflecting HCWs’ fear, mistrust, sense of inequity and social solidarity (or breakdown). PPE therefore represents the affective (emotional) demands of professional care, as well as a technical challenge of infection prevention and control. If rationing of PPE is necessary, policymakers need to take account of how HCWs will perceive restrictions or conflicting recommendations and build trust through effective communication (including of uncertainty).