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A large medical unit at Manitoba's largest hospital has been temporarily shut down due to staff exposure to the novel coronavirus, prompting a stringent new safety protocol for all health-care workers who come in contact with patients.
Four nurses at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre have tested positive for COVID-19 and 40 nurses in total at the site are in self-isolation, the Manitoba Nurses Union says.
About 30 other workers at the hospital, represented by the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals, are also in self-isolation. As are 20 HSC support staff and 15 security officers, represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
An untold number of doctors are also affected.
As Manitoba comes to grips with an ever-widening coronavirus crisis, front-line health-care workers are increasingly becoming the hardest hit.
Manitoba announced 40 new cases of the coronavirus Thursday, bringing the total to 167. Five persons are in hospital, with four in intensive care.
Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer at Shared Health, said the escalating number of hospital staff testing positive or self-isolating in recent days prompted the new protocol that all staff coming into contact with patients wear personal protection equipment (PPE).
"We know what impact COVID-19 has had on health-care workers around the world. And in the last few days, the true reality of what happened elsewhere is starting to be felt here in Manitoba," Siragusa told a news briefing Thursday.
"And we know everything about this is hard — not just on the workers themselves, but on their loved ones, too."
Until Thursday, health workers were only donning PPE when dealing COVID-19 or suspected coronavirus patients.
The change in protocol, which began to be implemented Thursday, affects health-care staff working with patients at hospitals, long-term care facilities, health-care centres, nursing stations, Access centres, and COVID-19 testing centres.
On Wednesday, the province's chief public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, announced there was now evidence of community spread of COVID-19.
Staff at four Manitoba hospitals — HSC, Grace, St. Boniface and the Selkirk Regional Health Centre — have tested positive for the virus.
Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said in addition to the 40 nurses at HSC, 14 at Grace Hospital and several at the Selkirk hospital are also self-isolating. One ER nurse at Grace has tested positive for the coronavirus.
The shutdown of the unit at HSC will have a significant impact, particularly since the system is already short of nurses, Jackson said.
She said the new PPE measures should help reduce the number of hospital staff becoming infected or having to self-isolate.
"I'm glad to see it, but I don't think it happened soon enough and I don't think they've gone far enough," Jackson said.
For weeks, the union had been pushing health officials to allow nurses to use their own judgement in determining what type of PPE they required, Jackson said, as was being done in some other jurisdictions.
Asked whether the change in PPE protocol should have been implemented sooner, Siragusa said the plan was to escalate safety measures when community transmission of COVID-19 was evident.
She said the potential impact on operations of the temporary staff loss at HSC is significant, "and we have to be able to manage that situation."
On Thursday, long staff lineups were witnessed at some hospitals during shift changes — a result of new employee screening measures announced the previous day, after reports at least one health worker had shown up for work despite showing symptoms for the virus. The employee later tested positive.
At St. Boniface Hospital, the staff lineup snaked from the hospital's main entrance down Tache Avenue. Workers had their temperature taken and had to answer questions about travel history and any symptoms they had before starting their shift.
Asked about the lineups Thursday, Siragusa noted the measure was just being implemented and hospitals would have to work out procedures to speed the process.
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