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B.C. nurses grapple with locked safety gear and fear of exposing families to COVID-19
Published Tuesday, March 24, 2020 7:24PM PDT Last Updated Tuesday, March 24, 2020 8:17PM PDT
VANCOUVER -- As more and more sick British Columbians seek medical attention for COVID-19 symptoms, many frontline healthcare workers are reporting difficulty accessing protective materials needed to keep themselves from becoming sick and potentially vectors of the disease.
The BC Nurses’ Union is fielding complaints from members who say they don’t have enough personal protective equipment to keep their patients and themselves safe, and are so fearful of bringing the virus back to their households and infecting family members, they’re asking the provincial government to take over hotels or other accommodations near hospitals so nurses have a place to clean up and sleep while on rotation.
“Reports that I’ve heard from the nurses is it’s difficult to access the personal protective equipment that they need,” said BCNU president Christine Sorensen. “It is prioritized for those units where we do know there are COVID-19 positive patients, but the concern has to be around the numbers of people coming in with other influenza-like illnesses who we don’t yet if they are infected and we’re awaiting test results.”
Several frontline medical workers in various capacities and medical settings tell CTV News that masks in particular are now hidden, often under lock and key, at doctors’ offices and hospitals as a result of thefts.
“At many sites it’s being restricted, it’s locked up,” confirmed Sorensen. “Nurses have to access that either through a manager or security officer so that does delay care and that does concern nurses.”
Some nurses and doctors have posted to social media describing sleeping in separate rooms from their partner or in garages to avoid bringing COVID-19 into their homes. Others have strict decontamination protocols, showering the moment they arrive home and dropping clothes into the washing machine before they can come into contact with any household items or clean clothing.
The BCNU is looking for clean scrubs supplied by the workplace, dedicated changing areas, as well as portable shower stations so they can clean up before leaving the hospital. Ideally, they’re looking for off-site accommodations during their on-shift stretches; nurses in acute care work two day shifts and two night shifts in a row before being off for four days.
“They would like to be able to stay somewhere that they don’t have to potentially put other family members or the community at risk, so they are asking if accommodations can be provided in hotels or other arrangements around the hospitals,” said Sorensen, adding that some nurses commute an hour or more and a good number are being asked to work overtime, which sometimes adds up to an 18-hour day.
CTV News asked the Ministry of Health about the nurses' concerns around access to personal protective equipment and request for off-site accommodations but has not received a response.
While Sorensen said the exact figures are hard to pin down, she confirmed a number of nurses have tested positive for COVID-19 in B.C. and many more are home on self-isolation after exposure to confirmed cases or symptoms of the disease. Nurses working in acute care have their temperature taken at the start of their shift, and if it’s above normal, they’re sent home.
“Nurses have already been stretched thin and they are anxious," said Sorensen. "They read the same reports you and I do, and they know what’s potentially coming."