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Sudbury’s nurses and PSWs are ‘worried,’activist says; ‘It’s really obvious now that long-term care is the epicentre of the coronavirus in Canada’

Posted: April 2, 2020

(April 1, 2020)

By: Jim Moodie, Sudbury Star

Deaths will occur at local nursing homes unless more steps are taken to protect residents and staff from COVID-19, warns a local nurse and health-care advocate.

“It’s really obvious now that long-term care is the epicentre of the coronavirus in Canada because that’s where the hot-spot cluster infections are going to happen – and are happening,” said Dot Klein, an RN and head of the Sudbury chapter of the Ontario Health Coalition. “We’ve got deaths in long-term care facilities in B.C. and of course now in Ontario, as well.”

Seven residents succumbed to COVID-19 over the weekend at the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, while many staff tested positive and were placed in mandatory isolation. Outbreaks have also occurred at a dozen other long-term care facilities in the province, according to the health coalition.

“It’s looking quite grave,” said Klein, who worked herself in long-term care for 14 years and has been in regular contact of late with nurses and personal support workers at Sudbury nursing homes.

“They’re scared,” she said of the staff. “They know how vulnerable they are, but they also know how dedicated they are to their residents. They will go come hell or high water to look after them, but they also have families at home and they are burning out.”

Klein said the Ontario Health Coalition commissioned a study last year on a province-wide shortage of PSWs, but little has been done to improve the situation.

“We had a round table in Sudbury in June, nine months ago, and the report was released in February this year, but nothing has really progressed,” she said. “There’s a lack of trust and PSWs are afraid to talk openly out of fear of reprisals.”

Volunteers and nursing students shy of graduating have been enlisted to help during the pandemic, she said, but in many cases, they are not up to speed on everything they need to know and staff are becoming frayed and frustrated.

“The new emergency act that Doug Ford has brought in surpasses any collective agreement, so their supervisor can come along and say, no, you’re not going to look after the residents in this unit today, I need you for something else,” said Klein. “They don’t know who is looking after their residents, but they have to go, so they’re really upset.”

Klein said the biggest concerns for staff are a lack of personal protective equipment and insufficient testing for coronavirus.

In many cases workers will have no protection or only a paper mask to cover their face, which becomes useless, said Klein, as soon as it becomes damp from breathing.

While N95 respiratory masks are available, they are in short supply and a PSW working a night shift will not even have access to one, since they are kept locked away and approval is required first from a supervisor, she said.

Testing for the virus, meanwhile, is limited to those residents and staff members who exhibit obvious symptoms, said Klein, which overlooks many who might also be sick but just aren’t showing evidence of the infection yet.

“We know you may have it for six days or maybe more before you have any symptoms,” said Klein. “But you can’t wait a week, because it’s likely that resident will have had contact with a number of front-line workers. Or if it is the PSW that is positive and has been coming into work, they could infect the whole home in no time at all, because they are being assigned all over.”

In a release issued Tuesday, the health coalition said Ontario trails all provinces in testing for coronavirus, with only 334 per 100,000 people being swabbed. Alberta, by contrast, is testing three times as many residents, while five times as many are being tested in the Northwest Territories.

“The Ford government has said that the reason is a lack of reagents needed for testing,” the coalition notes. “But Ontario not only lags in the number of tests per capita (which one might expect given the size of the population), our province has also done fewer tests in total than our nearest large province and is very close in total numbers to other large provinces that have much smaller populations. Which raises the question – if other provinces have enough reagents to do more tests, then why does Ontario not?” The national labour union CLAC also sounded the alarm on Tuesday, warning nursing homes will become vectors for COVID-19 unless more protective equipment is immediately supplied.

“Recent outbreaks in two Ontario long-term care homes demonstrate that COVID-19 is clearly spreading in ways that current policies are failing to address, and that includes failing to protect people from airborne droplets arising from regular or heavier breathing,” said Michael Reid, CLAC’s Ontario health-care coordinator.

The organization is calling on the Ford government to both boost PPE and implement stronger usage protocols in long-term care homes to protect front-line workers and residents.

Klein said the same message is being sent by the Ontario Health Coalition and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario.

“What we’re saying is that social distancing is not going to do it alone,” she said. “We have to get the testing up and running, along with diligent tracking – where has that person been – and get the protective equipment out to the front line. Here in Sudbury the PSWs are telling me they do not even know where the protective equipment is.”

Apart from N95 masks, which fit snugly around a health-care worker’s face and block airborne particles, staff should also be equipped with goggles and eyeshields, said Klein.

“I’ve been in touch with many of the PSWs and nurses here in Sudbury and they’re worried,” said Klein. “Their unions are worried. But because of the emergency order, there’s no way they can raise an issue until this is over, and by then we might have front-line staff dead – which is something none of us want. You don’t wait until there is a tragedy.”

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