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Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) is transmitted mainly by aerosol in particles <10 µm that can remain suspended for hours before being inhaled. Because particulate filtering facepiece respirators (‘respirators’; e.g. N95 masks) are more effective than surgical masks against bio-aerosols, many international organisations now recommend that health workers (HWs) wear a respirator when caring for individuals who may have COVID-19. In South Africa (SA), however, surgical masks are still recommended for the routine care of individuals with possible or confirmed COVID-19, with respirators reserved for so-called aerosol-generating procedures. In contrast, SA guidelines do recommend respirators for routine care of individuals with possible or confirmed tuberculosis (TB), which is also transmitted via aerosol. In health facilities in SA, distinguishing between TB and COVID-19 is challenging without examination and investigation, both of which may expose HWs to potentially infectious individuals. Symptom-based triage has limited utility in defining risk. Indeed, significant proportions of individuals with COVID-19 and/or pulmonary TB may not have symptoms and/or test negative. The prevalence of undiagnosed respiratory disease is therefore likely significant in many general clinical areas (e.g. waiting areas). Moreover, a proportion of HWs are HIV-positive and are at increased risk of severe COVID-19 and death. Recommendations Sustained improvements in infection prevention and control (IPC) require reorganisation of systems to prioritise HW and patient safety. While this will take time, it is unacceptable to leave HWs exposed until such changes are made. We propose that the SA health system adopts a target of ‘zero harm’, aiming to eliminate transmission of respiratory pathogens to all individuals in every healthcare setting. Accordingly, we recommend: 1. the use of respirators by all staff (clinical and non-clinical) during activities that involve contact or sharing air in indoor spaces with individuals who: (i) have not yet been clinically evaluated; or (ii) are thought or known to have TB and/or COVID-19 or other potentially harmful respiratory infections; 2. the use of respirators that meet national and international manufacturing standards; 3. evaluation of all respirators, at the least, by qualitative fit testing; and 4. the use of respirators as part of a ‘package of care’ in line with international IPC recommendations. We recognise that this will be challenging, not least due to global and national shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). SA national policy around respiratory protective equipment enables a robust framework for manufacture and quality control and has been supported by local manufacturers and the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition. Respirator manufacturers should explore adaptations to improve comfort and reduce barriers to communication. Structural changes are needed urgently to improve the safety of health facilities: persistent advocacy and research around potential systems change remain essential.

Original publication




Journal article


African Journal of Thoracic and Critical Care Medicine

Publication Date





177 - 186