Errors in safety information mean airport and quarantine workers are being sent to the front line in potentially dangerous equipment they believe to be safe. Nikki Mandow reports. 

Airport border workers are being sent to the Covid front line wearing the wrong masks, potentially putting themselves at risk, and through them their families and the public. 

Worse, an error in Covid safety documentation means people working at airports and quarantine centres believe they are being given masks that provide a high level of protection, when actually they aren’t. 

It’s a false sense of security which could be dangerous, a pandemic risk expert says. 

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The problem revolves around a poster for airport border staff – many of whom Newsroom believes are now working in MIQ quarantine facilities. The poster is titled “Face masks for working safely at Avsec and CAA”. 

It starts with the statement that “the face masks we use in our workplaces to help protect against Covid-19 must … meet P2 or N95 testing requirements.”

P2 and N95 masks are high-quality filtering masks which keep out more than 95 percent of droplets and airborne particles, providing good protection from Covid.

The P2 and N95 standards (the first Australasian, the second from the US) have minor differences, but are used interchangeably when people are talking about Covid protective equipment.

From the “Face masks simple poster and FAQs”, CAA and Avsec, December 2020

The problem is that the main face mask being used by Avsec and CAA workers – the one on the top left of the poster above and being labelled as “our current standard supply option” – is not a P2/N95-standard mask.

The poster says the ear loop mask meets P2/N95 filtration requirements – but it doesn’t. It’s what’s known as a surgical (or sometimes a medical) mask. It doesn’t fit tightly to someone’s face, and doesn’t filter well. It doesn’t meet the Government’s own guidelines for people working in environments where Covid might be present. 

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Healthcare Engineering compared the protection provided by N95-grade masks (FFPs in the quote from the paper below) and surgical masks (SMs).

The study found: “The FFP respirators provided about 11.5 to 15.9 times better protection than the SMs, suggesting that SMs are not a good substitute for FFP respirators when concerns exist about airborne transmission of bacterial and viral pathogens.” 

Page two of the poster reinforces the mixed messages being given to frontline workers. Under “What sort of face masks do we need to wear?” the document states: 

“Masks worn in our workplaces need to provide either P2 or N95 level protection… We provide ear-loop surgical masks for front-line airport staff, which meet Ministry of Health recommendations.”

The advice is “definitely wrong”, says pandemic risk expert Wendy McGuinness of the McGuinness Institute. “I don’t understand how this is happening,” she said.

“The danger is people will read this poster and see surgical masks included in that definition of P2/N95 masks, when we know surgical masks don’t meet those standards. People will be going into these workplaces thinking they have a much higher level of protection than they actually have.”

Big shortage of P2 masks

One problem for the Government with its laudable goal to supply P2-grade masks to border workers– it doesn’t have many. 

“As of last month, the Ministry of Health told Newsroom it had only three million in its emergency stockpile, plus 200,000 in district health board stores, down from 600,000 in December. That’s against 11 million altogether in August 2020.

The Ministry will likely be reluctant to use more than what it says is its normal 6000 masks a week usage. That’s because following quality problems with masks made at the QSi mask plant in Whanganui, problems which were announced just before Christmas, it had to ditch possibly millions of QSi masks from the emergency stockpile. 

Former Ministry of Health group manager for Covid-19 testing and supply, Dr Kelvin Watson, told Newsroom last month that following the problems with the QSi masks, the organisation had ordered enough P2/N95 masks to bring stocks up to 30 million. 

A Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newsroom that as of this week about four million of approximately 28 million masks on order have arrived.

“The rest are expected to arrive in batches during 2021.”

By contrast, the ministry has plenty of the cheaper surgical masks – 270 million in the national store and just under 5 million at the DHBs, according to Dr Watson. 

“Appropriate PPE for these roles consists of an ear loop mask that is tested to P2 filtration standards.”
– Civil Aviation spokesperson

Contacted by Newsroom, a CAA spokesperson supplied a statement that appeared to compound the apparent lack of understanding of mask standards evident in the poster.

“Appropriate PPE for these roles consists of an ear loop mask that is tested to P2 filtration standards,” the spokesperson said. 

However one of the key differences between a surgical mask and a P2/N95 mask is that the former does not filter well, let alone meets P2 filtration standards, as this table below – the relevant part of a larger infographic from the US Centre for Disease Control – makes abundantly clear. 

The two sorts of masks are also tested using completely different methods.

The CAA statement continues: “The Ministry of Health guidance – Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) Guidance Air Border Version 1.0 (released 1 March 2021) – covers measures that all border workers at airports should take to reduce the exposure to passengers with acute respiratory infection. These include… wearing PPE as directed.

“At a minimum, staff in areas shared with returning passengers and/or international or domestic transit aircraft passenger cabins must wear a medical mask. The measures the Authority has taken for some time, including the P2 or N95 filtration level masks mentioned in the staff poster, have provided for the protection for our staff.”

Proposed changes

The Civil Aviation Authority statement for Newsroom also provides this confusing piece of information.

“From 16 April, our on-airport staff in Auckland will move into a ‘green zone’ or ‘red zone’ model when trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel starts. Our staff in the ‘red zone’ will be using additional PPE, including gowns, masks that meet N95 filtration standards and face shields.”

The quarantine-free travel is scheduled to start on Monday, April 19.

But aren’t masks that meet N95 standards already compulsory for airport workers, according to the poster? One anecdotal story may also be relevant here, as it suggests an equal confusion in at least one MIQ facility over the quality and protection offered by the two different sorts of masks.

Newsroom was told from a reliable source of a returning resident from the US who arrived recently at an MIQ facility wearing an N95 mask. He was asked by security staff to take it off and replace it with a surgical mask. 

When the visitor protested he preferred to wear an N95 mask because he was worried about catching Covid in the isolation facility and the mask he was wearing offered more protection than the surgical mask, the security officer was firm. Surgical masks were the prescribed PPE for managed isolation, not N95 masks, and the new arrival needed to change it.

The man was not able to persuade the guard the mask he was wearing was safer than the one he was being told to wear.

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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