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Nurses asked to stretch use of gear

'You shouldn't have to fight to be able to keep yourself safe to provide care,' nurse says of equipment practices

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A Winnipeg nurse fears she could be exposed to COVID-19 at work, and says a shortage of protective gear is raising that risk.

The public health nurse, who asked not to be named, told the Free Press some practices for personal protective equipment (PPE) are inadequate as the novel coronavirus pandemic continues.

She said public health nurses have been advised to use the same surgical or procedure face masks and other gear when seeing multiple patients in the same day, as health agencies struggle to cope with global shortages of equipment.

"What we’re being told now is to use that same PPE between visits, so all day," she said. "Some nurses have multiple home visits in the afternoon and have to wear the same masks, the same eye shield, the same gown."

The nurse noted gloves may be changed between visits but said she worries about the virus contaminating her other gear. A Shared Health document notes a face mask should be discarded when it’s visibly soiled, becomes damp, comes in direct contact with a patient, when a non-user coughs or sneezes on it or touches the front of it, or when a shift ends.

While phone assessments have become much more common than in-person visits, the nurse said she still sees patients in the community to deal with "imminent risk factors" each week.

Nurses do ask questions to determine the risk of COVID-19 before arriving to provide that care, she said, and if a risk is suspected, they can get an N95 mask for the job. Those masks are expected to offer more protection against COVID-19 than others.

The nurse said she’d prefer to keep an N95 mask with her throughout each shift, in case she finds out a patient is at greater risk of spreading the virus once she arrives at an appointment.

"We are cognizant that there’s a shortage of N95, but we need it just in case… You shouldn’t have to fight to be able to keep yourself safe to provide care," she said.

The nurse said that absence of extra protection could delay care, if a nurse leaves an appointment to get more equipment. She fears some nurses will instead treat patients while wearing inadequate protection.

"You may have a nurse who just feels like, ‘My God, I’ve just got to provide care here,’ and they’ll go in with their procedural and surgical masks and may be at risk of being exposed to COVID-19," she said.

She’s also concerned restrictions meant to conserve protective gear will remain in place as the province allows some facilities that were closed during the pandemic to reopen. On Monday, hair salons, retail stores, dental offices, and other facilities can reopen with strict guidelines on social distancing.

The nurse said she expects that change will lead more people to interact with others in small spaces, which could fuel a spike in new cases.

She would prefer testing for all symptomatic Manitobans last for at least a couple of weeks before any restrictions are reduced, which she said would offer more insight on the spread of the virus.

"You’re going to open up (some businesses) days after you implement testing to any symptomatic individuals, yet we don’t have the (access we want to) PPE. That puts all health-care workers at risk," she said.

In an emailed statement, a Shared Health spokesperson stressed the health of staff is the agency’s top priority, adding the extended wear for procedure masks aligns with Public Health Agency of Canada guidelines.

The spokesperson noted PPE supply levels can change on a daily basis.

"We are taking every possible step to ensure appropriate protection remains available to staff in high-risk settings and situations for the duration of this pandemic. Appropriate use now will conserve supplies that we will need later," the statement said.

joyanne.pursaga@freepress.mb.ca

Joyanne Pursaga

Joyanne Pursaga
Reporter

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.

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