A pregnant cleaning employee denied access to an N95 mask when cleaning the room of a COVID-19 positive patient.
A nurse hiding an N95 mask under a surgical mask after being warned by her supervisor that she could be fined if she was caught wearing an N95 again.
Another nurse worried that, when the pandemic is over, their employer won’t have enough counsellors ready to handle staff demand.
These are some of the stories researchersheard from health-care workers during the first wave of Ontario’s COVID-19 pandemic.
“Health-care workers’ health and well-being are being sacrificed,” said Margaret Keith, an occupational and environmental health researcher and one of the authors of a journal article about the experiences of 10 health-care workers, all members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).
“We all need to pay attention to their pleas during this frightening time,” Keith said at a Tuesday press conference. “Not only does their well-being matter, we need to realize that if they are not kept safe and well, they can’t properly care for their patients and residents.”
Researchers say Canadian health-care workers — who are contracting COVID-19 at a rate higher than the global average — feel abandoned by the provincial government and are suffering serious psychological distress. They warn urgent action is necessary to ensure adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), staff levels and mental-health support for staff as Ontario battles a second wave of the pandemic that has already strained intensive care units.
“Words on the page cannot convey the level of emotion we heard in the voices of the health-care workers we interviewed,” said James Brophy, an occupational and environmental health researcher and co-author of the article.
“We did not expect to hear the degree of anger and desperation that came out.”
Mental health support, whistleblower protection needed
While we’re all feeling pandemic fatigue to some degree, health-care workers are “disproportionately” suffering from “serious psychological distress,” Brophy said.
“They are burnt out from stress and overwork, and from unrelenting fear and anxiety.”
Women, many of whom are racialized or recent immigrants, make up the “overwhelming majority” of front-line health-care workers, Keith said. Many work in part-time or precarious positions, meaning they’re “particularly vulnerable to exploitation.”
One personal support worker (PSW) told researchers that she believes if staffing was more male-dominated, there would be better staffing levels and pay.
These workers also need better whistleblower protections, the researchers agreed. Brophy said a third of the workers who signed up to talk to the researchers backed out because they were afraid of employer reprisal.
“But when this is over, they’re really going to need help.”
Researchers also called attention to the issue of violence against health-care workers, which they said has worsened because of lockdowns, cancelled programs and visitor restrictions. One PSW said they were punched in the face by a resident whose aggression had been building up.
“Everyone is still in shock. They’re just going on adrenalin,” a health-care worker told researchers. “But when this is over, they’re really going to need help.”
PPE issues persist, union says
In March, when CUPE polled 3,000 members about their concerns, 87 per cent said there was not enough PPE on site to keep them safe.
Eight months later, it’s “unbelievable” that some health-care workers who are around COVID-19 positive residents and patients still can’t access the recommended safety equipment, said Michael Hurley, president of the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, who also co-authored the journal article.
WATCH: Ford warns care homes to let staff access PPE. Story continues below.
In question period Tuesday, Ontario Minister of Long-Term Care Merrilee Fullerton said the government will continue to ensure all homes have the necessary PPE and staffing.
“There’s no home right now with … a critical shortage of staff or PPE. Our homes are doing much better,” she said.
In Ontario, N95 masks were previously limited mostly to staff performing aerosol-generating procedures, like intubation. Several unions launched a judicial review and reached an agreement with the government. In October, Ontario issued a new directive stating that if a risk assessment finds an N95 mask is needed for the delivery of services, including interactions, that health-care workers must be given a fit-tested N95 mask, its equivalent or better protection.
Staff ‘already traumatized’
The SARS commission recommended the precautionary principle guide the development of pandemic-related worker safety policies, practices and guidelines.
That didn’t happen in the first wave of COVID-19, Brophy said.
“Rather than erring on the side of caution … regulators chose to ignore the growing scientific evidence and downplay the risk to health-care workers,” he said.
The researchers wrote that the worldwide N95 mask shortage “appears to have influenced guidelines for protection” despite increasing evidence that the virus is spread through airborne particles.
They pointed to a study of health-care workers in China that indicated infection rates declined “substantially” when staff had more protection, including fluid-resistant clothing with long sleeves and a head covering and N95 or equivalent respirators.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Health has not yet responded to HuffPost Canada’s request for comment.
Ontario has reported new cases above 1,000 for over two weeks and there are over 100,000 confirmed cases in the province. Over 3,000 cases were reported as a health-care worker associated with a long-term care outbreak, according to provincial data.
“As this surge increases, and the pressure on [health-care workers] increases, we have to be mindful that it increases on a staff that’s already traumatized,” Brophy said.