Monash study finds PPE in conjunction with HEPA filtration offers health workers the best protection

A Monash University study has demonstrated that full PPE, involving a fit-tested N95 mask, in conjunction with a HEPA filtration system, offers health workers in a hospital setting the best protection against virus aerosol exposure.

A Monash University study has demonstrated that full PPE, involving a fit-tested N95 mask, in conjunction with a HEPA filtration system, offers health workers in a hospital setting the best protection against virus aerosol exposure.

Led by Dr Simon Joosten, from the Monash University School of Clinical Sciences at Monash Health and a member of Monash BDI's Edwards Lab, and co-funded by the Monash Institute of Medical Engineering and Monash Partners Academic Health Science Centre, the study used a live virus aerosol model that highlighted the standard PPE strategy that was developed with droplet transmission in mind is not geared to prevent aerosol transmission and may offer insufficient protection in a hospital environment.

Studying the interaction of virus aerosol and PPE, the research found that the installation of a HEPA filter that cleans the room volume 13 times an hour, combined with a fit-tested N95 mask and full PPE, offered almost complete prevention of nasal contamination by live virus aerosol.

The experimental study used a nebuliser to pump bacteriophage PhiX174 into a sealed clinical room for 40 minutes testing three scenarios:

  • A health care worker in full PPE - surgical mask, gloves, gown, face shield
  • A health care worker in full PPE - but with a fit-tested N95 mask
  • A health care worker in full PPE - with a fit-tested N95 mask and a HEPA filter system.

Virus exposure was then captured via skin swabs applied to the face, nostrils, forearms, neck and forehead. It found significant infiltration in scenario one (over 200 virus particles detected in nostril), slightly less infiltration in scenario two (between 25-200 virus particles detected in nostrils) and almost complete prevention in scenario three (zero to 1 virus particle detected).

Quantitative fit-testing of masks is carried out by hospital respiratory protection programs and involves a quick test to measure how much air is being filtered by the mask, as opposed to leaking through the sides using a machine that tests for leaks. This ensures that the right mask with the best fit can be chosen by staff on the ward.

While the research is currently under peer review, the findings, when presented to hospital management at Monash Health and Epworth Health, resulted in immediate impact with Dr Joosten involved in helping both health services deploy HEPA filter technology on hospital wards caring for COVID-19 patients.

Dr Joosten says the findings demonstrate that standard PPE alone does not protect against infectious aerosol at high load.

“Our study highlights the need to provide multiple layers of protection to health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr Joosten said.

“Among the most important protective measures are vaccination, personal protective equipment and ventilation. Here we show that personal protective equipment and ventilation interact to provide added protective benefit against virus-laden aerosol.”

Monash Health Chief Medical Officer, Professor Anjali Dhulia, says Dr Joosten’s previously published and most recent HEPA filter data research contributed to the deployment of HEPA filter technology at Monash Health.

“Dr Joosten continues to provide ongoing input to Monash Health in this space given his research expertise,” Professor Dhulia said.

Dr Lachlan Henderson, Group Chief Executive, Epworth HealthCare, said keeping patients, staff and doctors safe has been the priority throughout the pandemic.

“Epworth has been a leader in implementing a higher level of PPE than was required across key areas like our emergency departments, intensive care units and COVID-19 ward,” Dr Henderson said.

“We have also regularly reviewed airflows at each of our hospitals. Dr Joosten’s virus aerosol research was critical in guiding our infection control team to deploy HEPA filter technology at Epworth as an added layer of protection.”

Dr Joosten was recently awarded a $50,000 grant from the Epworth Medical Foundation and will advise on airflow management in the upgraded cancer ward at Epworth Freemasons.

About Monash University

Monash University is Australia’s largest university with more than 80,000 students. In the 60 years since its foundation, it has developed a reputation for world-leading high-impact research, quality teaching, and inspiring innovation.

With four campuses in Australia and a presence in Malaysia, China, India, Indonesia and Italy, it is one of the most internationalised Australian universities.

As a leading international medical research university with the largest medical faculty in Australia and integration with leading Australian teaching hospitals, we consistently rank in the top 50 universities worldwide for clinical, pre-clinical and health sciences.

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