Even as they battled a surging COVID-19 outbreak on their ward, nurses at Victoria General Hospital were asked to use regular surgical masks to treat positive patients or make do with a single N95 mask for their entire shift, leaving some to go hours without drinking water or taking breaks for fear of reusing potentially contaminated PPE.

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Even as they battled a surging COVID-19 outbreak on their ward, nurses at Victoria General Hospital were asked to use regular surgical masks to treat positive patients or make do with a single N95 mask for their entire shift, leaving some to go hours without drinking water or taking breaks for fear of reusing potentially contaminated PPE.

"We all feel like we’ve been let down," said Eric Wheeler, a nurse who works on the stricken fifth floor.

The WRHA declared an outbreak at Victoria on Oct. 22. As of noon on Friday, it had surged to include 26 staff and 32 patients, one of whom has died. There are about 62 beds on the two impacted family medicine wards, which are filled with vulnerable elderly patients.

Over the weekend, Wheeler’s experience on the front lines went viral after his wife, Cortney Wheeler, wrote an open letter to Manitobans on Facebook, describing what her husband and other nurses at Victoria’s 5N and 5S wards had experienced. The Wheelers decided to speak out after more than a week of frustration.

 

An open letter to Manitobans From a family that is dealing with COVID after the Victoria General Hospital outbreak, I...

Posted by Cortney Wheeler on Saturday, October 31, 2020

 

"I’m sick and tired of watching my colleagues get sick, so I wanted to get it out there," Eric Wheeler said. "I’m disappointed that our vulnerable people in this province are dying... I don’t know who’s at fault, but I want it fixed."

Within 24 hours, the post had been shared thousands of times, eliciting a groundswell of support. Cortney Wheeler said she has received dozens of messages from nurses across Manitoba expressing their own struggles obtaining sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to feel safe working with COVID-19 patients.

"The response has been overwhelming," she said. "The messages I’m getting from nurses have made all my doubts about whether I should put it out there vanish. I’m hearing horror story after horror story … they’re too scared to voice them, and in some cases have been told not to voice them."

According to Eric Wheeler, the Victoria outbreak began when a patient was transferred from St. Boniface Hospital. The patient was given a single room, but was not required to isolate. The next day, the patient’s former St. Boniface ward declared an outbreak, but staff at Victoria were not initially notified about the link.

In the meantime, the patient was allowed to walk the halls with physiotherapy staff, or on his own. In conversations with the Free Press on Sunday, visitors familiar to the ward recall seeing one newly-transferred patient walking the hallways and spending time near the elevators.

Within a few days of his arrival, the patient began showing symptoms of COVID-19. At that point, he was immediately isolated and tested for the virus, which soon came back positive. He was transferred back to St. Boniface, but by then the virus was already loose on the Victoria wards, as patients and staff began showing symptoms.

On Sunday, the Free Press also spoke to a visitor to the ward who has since tested positive, along with their family member who was a patient.

"It spread like wildfire," Wheeler said. "People started dropping like crazy."

According to Wheeler, one nurse who tested positive early in the outbreak was told that since she had been wearing PPE, her infection must have been community acquired. Another nurse contacted their occupational health officer to report that she needed a test, and was told she didn’t count as an exposure since she was wearing PPE.

That PPE, Wheeler said, amounts to wearing regular surgical masks and goggles in rooms that are not suspected for COVID-19. When going into patient rooms that are suspected of the virus they add surgical gowns and gloves, which they remove after leaving. They were not initially supplied with the higher-quality N95 masks.

"We asked management, ‘is it okay if we get an N95?’" Wheeler said. "They said ‘that’s fine, you don’t need an N95, but if it makes you feel better you can wear those.’"

Staff were given one N95 mask for their entire shift, along with a brown paper bag to put it in during lunch or coffee breaks. That means that they are being asked to remove a mask that has been used in treating COVID-19 positive patients, put it in a bag, and later reach into that bag to put it back on after taking a break.

As a result, Wheeler said, some nurses have been avoiding taking water or meal breaks.

"Our heroes aren’t even getting a water break because they’re scared of infection," Cortney Wheeler said. "If this is how we treat our heroes, it’s sad."

At a minimum, Eric Wheeler wants to see front-line staff being provided with sufficient N95 masks for their shifts. He would also like to see the WRHA mandate that N95s be used for working with COVID-19 positive patients, and to see protocols added to expand rapid testing at hospitals and test patients being transferred between facilities.

"If there would have been protocol in place for swabs between hospitals, we would have been able to escape this whole outbreak, maybe," he said.

While the Wheelers are concerned about the potential repercussions of speaking out, they did so because they hope it will help inform the conversation on how to keep health care workers, their patients, and all Manitobans safe. That’s why her husband became a nurse in the first place, Cortney Wheeler said: to help care for people.

"The only way we can get through this together is to talk about what’s happening, communicate about what’s going on, and learn from our mistakes," she said. "The whole point of writing (the open letter) was to say ‘let’s not let this happen again. Let’s learn from our mistakes, let’s get over this critical time and let’s regroup."

A spokesman for Shared Health released a statement late Sunday refusing to speak to a particular incident, but saying "no staff are expected to reuse wet or soiled masks (N95 or otherwise) and N95s are to be replaced following a break."

"Preventing health-care workers from exposure to and transmission of COVID-19 is the basis upon which an agreement was reached in July with the Manitoba Nurses Union to ensure appropriate PPE remains available."

The spokesman said a joint PPE committee, including representatives from the nurses union, is tasked with monitoring supply levels and ensuring compliance with PPE guidelines.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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