As Canada faced a massive blood supply shortage, nurses at one of the country’s largest collection sites were told last week they would not be provided protective N95 face masks or other basic safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Some even reported being told to take off masks they brought in themselves, according to the union that represents them.
Canadian Blood Services (CBS), the non-profit that manages Canada’s blood bank along with Hema-Quebec, employs over 700 nurses, screeners and service staff who have been foisted to the front line of this pandemic.
By Monday morning, many of the workers at the downtown Toronto location had declined to draw blood without proper personal protective equipment, according to a prospective donor and the union that represents the CBS staff.
On March 16, a senior CBS official told the Globe and Mail that the supply was “right on the precipice” because certain blood products have a limited shelf life. With increased demand and mounting tensions as the threat of the pandemic weighs heavily on the health-care industry, CBS staff across the country became weary of the lack of safety measures in place for both workers and donors, according to the workers’ union. It says it received numerous complaints from members, including those who say they were told last week not to wear masks they brought from home.
Since then, the organization’s 35 centres across Canada went from struggling to lure Canadians out of self-isolation to give blood, to an overload of appointments due to a call for support on social media.
Facility in disarray
“When I arrived, there was a lineup and it was going to be a 90-minute wait,” said Amy Stuart, who decided to donate blood after hearing of an imminent shortage as Toronto is in lockdown and braces for a surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming days. Although prospective donors are able to make an appointment in advance, Stuart told HuffPost Canada the facility was in disarray when she arrived, with would-be donors negotiating social distance markers and each other.
“The greeter at the door told me they didn’t have enough people to draw blood. He said there was only one nurse working, and that she was only still there because she felt bad.”
When Stuart finally made it inside to meet with a screener she said she noticed the employee pre-screening donors was not separated by a plexiglass barrier, and was only seated on a chair inside a small box taped on the floor.
Stuart was given a touchscreen device with a pre-loaded questionnaire that included COVID-19-related inquiries, but her temperature wasn’t checked and the facility is not swabbing donors for the virus.
“I was surprised that none of the staff were wearing masks or gloves in the waiting room,” Stuart said. “There is more spacing, gloves and plexi guards at a grocery store — a No Frills has better safety measures than this place.”
“Some bosses are willing to put their workers in harm’s way, but aren’t willing to provide much support for them.”
According to Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) president Warren Thomas, CBS had resisted providing protective gear such as masks and gloves to all its workers since the pandemic hit Canada last month.
“Mid-last week we started getting reports from work sites about staff being uncomfortable with the conditions,” Thomas told HuffPost. He contacted the organization and said he was met with resistance.
“Some bosses are willing to put their workers in harm’s way, but aren’t willing to provide much support for them.” Thomas said he was frustrated because other organizations his union represents, such as the LCBO, have had safety measures in place for weeks.
On Monday, OPSEU sent CBS a series of demands to improve the safety of its 35 locations, including supplying all front-line workers with protective gear, and installing transparent barriers.
“It’s not rocket science,” Thomas said of the organization’s continued refusal to install barriers for screeners and other staff that come in close contact with donors. “They just need to hire a contractor.”
A spokesperson for CBS told HuffPost Thursday that the organization is “aware of the situation and [they] take seriously concerns staff have been raising around personal protective equipment.”
In an email to CBS employees on Tuesday, CEO Dr. Graham Sher said the organization will distribute gloves and masks to its donor centres “over the coming weeks.”
“The wellbeing of our employees begins with ensuring they feel safe,” the email continues. “Although the evidence does not support the use of facemasks in community settings like ours to reduce COVID-19 transmission, we recognize these new measures are important to ensure that our teams feel safe to do their jobs.”
A study of passengers aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was ravaged by the virus, suggests nearly 18 per cent of COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic. That uncertainty has made Canadian Blood Services staff wary of going to work each day and coming into close contact with the public, said Thomas.
With the dire state of the economy, employees were reluctant to speak out at this time out of fear that they may be fired, particularly as the blood supply could again dip if Canada remains under lockdown in the coming weeks and months, he said.
Later this month, CBS will begin receiving COVID-19 survivors for an ambitious clinical trial, which seeks to collect antibody-rich plasma to infuse into patients fighting for their lives in hospital. The vast majority of the plasma donations are set to take place at Canadian Blood Services locations.
The organization said only fully recovered survivors who have tested negative for COVID-19 and have self-quarantined for 14 days will be permitted to enter a facility and make a plasma donation. The trial hopes to attract 1,000 donors for the experimental treatment.
CBS declined to provide a specific timeframe and details about its stockpile of protective equipment, saying it had only a “finite supply of masks” but was working to source replacements. The organization said it would also look into installing barriers “where possible.”
Wearing a mask has become a divisive topic, as front-line healthcare workers face imminent shortages across Canada. Toronto-area hospitals are “just a few weeks away” from running out of proper protective equipment, according to an official at Toronto’s University Health Network who asked not to be named due to fear of negative repercussions at work.
With demand aggressively outpacing supply, health-care facilities around the world are faced with paying exorbitant prices to get what masks, gloves, scrubs and shields are still available from wholesalers. Some ICU and emergency room doctors have begun stitching together homemade masks in preparation for a shortage, according to the Toronto hospital official.
In New York City, where the virus has hit hardest in North America, front-line workers are already making do with donations, wearing disposable ponchos and hand-stitched masks made by volunteer sewests.
“It’s not a hospital but the nurses taking blood are front-line healthcare workers,” said Stuart, who was ultimately unable to donate blood Monday morning after a lengthy wait.
“All of those nurses that work there may eventually be called into an emergency room next week,” said Stuart. “These are our reserve soldiers, we shouldn’t put them at risk.”
Also on HuffPost: