The BC Nurses Union (BCNU) is concerned that provincial health employers may be failing to protect healthcare workers from Covid-19, and are instead resorting to ‘questionable’ safety measures, like reusing personal protective equipment (PPE).
More than 1,700 complaints have been filed to the BCNU across the province since the pandemic was declared, 142 of those in Northern Health.
The Northern Health official numbers were registered to the BCNU 24/7 line, however, President Christine Sorenson says they have recorded more through other venues.
“The complaints that we have covered (are) a broad array of issues including access to gowns, reusing of face shields and masks, being assigned one mask per shift, and difficulty accessing N95 respirator masks,” Sorenson told MyPGNow.
“So masks are locked up, or when a nurse requests a mask they are denied the right to have an N95.”
As the province moves in and out of elevated stages of PPE supply risk, Sorensen says the number of reports the Union has received is troubling.
She says it is the responsibility of any employer to make sure their staff have proper protection and adequate working conditions, especially during the pandemic.
“We are wondering what the health authorities have been doing to making sure they can maintain the health and safety of their nursing staff, as well as other healthcare workers,” she explained.
“To run into such a shortage of PPE only in a few weeks after the pandemic is declared in BC is quite concerning.”
This has led BCNU to question what state the pandemic response measures were in before the health crisis, and how employers will deal with the challenge as it continues.
“Personal protective equipment should actually be considered the last line of defense,” said Sorenson, referencing Provincial Health Officer Doctor Bonnie Henry’s updated modeling briefing.
“There should be other things that health authorities are putting in place, including engineering controls such as plexiglass barriers and places where patients are interacting with healthcare staff,” she explained.
There are also administrative controls, such as reduced access to facilities, added Sorenson.
The Union is calling for ‘unfettered’ access to equipment, access that does not require nurses to ask for permission, to use a key, or having to go to another location in the hospital.
“We are also asking Northern Health to be transparent, tell us what your stock and supply is, let us know what is available, and what you’re having trouble with,” Sorenson said.
“When nurses come to work and need to use a gown, and there are none available, it’s disingenuous to tell us that there are no shortages of gowns.”
Sorenson also details concerns she’s received from nurses alleging they have been told to reuse masks.
It was initially something reported with nurses going into homes in the community, but they have started to see it in critical and long term care units as well.
“They are being told to place them on a piece of paper towel with their name written on the paper towel, and then to reapply them after their break,” said Sorenson.
“If we have an acceptable supply of N95 masks, why are nurses being asked to count them like they are narcotics? Why are nurses having difficulty accessing them, and why are we being asked to collect them for repurposing?”
As discussions start about gradually reopening the province to higher levels of personal interaction, nurses are still hesitant, fearful that as restrictions are lifted, numbers could potentially climb again.
In her Monday briefing, Dr. Henry revealed healthcare workers make up 21 percent (428) of people who have tested positive for Covid-19.
“Nurses expect when they go to work, they will be safe, and that they will have the equipment that they need to do their job safely,” Sorenson emphatically stated.