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‘Heads should roll’: Nurses livid over COVID-19 mask debate

VANCOUVER—When Linda Silas saw the news about a COVID-19 scare aboard a WestJet flight Thursday, her eyes were drawn to a particular element in the images: What were the employees — paramedics, flight attendants, pilots — wearing?

The gowns, gloves and, most importantly, special N-95 respirator masks the paramedics were wearing when they took a person suspected of having COVID-19 off the plane were all part of occupational health and safety standards set by the paramedics’ employer, she said.

Silas, who is the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said she just can’t accept that the Public Health Agency of Canada’s national standard for health-care workers isn’t as high. This week, the federal agency doubled down, saying their position not recommending N-95s was made in part to preserve supply of the specialized masks.

But Silas said health-care workers can’t wait any longer for protection that could prevent the spread of a deadly virus to them and patients alike. And a former senior adviser to the investigation into the SARS crisis said “heads should roll” at the agency for placing the blame on the availability of the masks.

“We’re talking about prevention and already the federal government is putting an obstacle to protect health-care workers,” Silas said in an interview. “PHAC has always worked very well to protect the public but has failed to protect health-care workers.”

She sent a letter Friday to all nurses unions across the country urging them to ask their employers to adopt the use of N-95 masks despite PHAC’s stance.

For the last month, Silas has been in a fight with the Public Health Agency of Canada to make their guidelines equivalent to those set by the province of Ontario, the Centre for Disease Control in the U.S., as well as comparable agencies in the U.K. and the European Union.

All those agencies are recommending the use of N-95 respirator masks for all health-care staff working with a potential COVID-19 patient. The special masks protect the wearer from breathing in airborne particles that could contain the virus, which regular surgical masks do not do. Scientists have not yet been able to conclude whether COVID-19 spreads in an airborne way, so using the N-95s around suspected COVID-19 patients is done according to the precautionary principle — in other words, err on the side of caution until you know for sure.

The nurses haven’t been the lone voice on the subject. Mario Possamai, who was a senior adviser to Ontario’s SARS commission responsible for occupational health and safety, sent the Minister of Health a letter asking why the agency’s standard for N-95 masks was lower than the the American CDC’s.

Possamai said he never received a response. And as he watches the virus spread globally, he’s getting more and more concerned that Canada is setting itself up to repeat the mistakes of SARS.

“We’re talking about life and death here. And we’re talking about making sure they feel protected and that we have their backs,” he said. “These were lessons from SARS and I’m beside myself that we haven’t learned these lessons yet.”

The SARS Commission concluded that approaches to occupational health and safety — including the use of N-95 masks — could have played a key role in preventing SARS from becoming a public health crisis in British Columbia the way it did in Ontario.

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Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, said the PHAC is concerned about “inappropriate” use of N-95 respirators.

“One of the issues that all of us are very concerned about is if we do have inappropriate use of these higher level protection N-95 respirators and a burn rate that exceeds supply, we’ll run out,” he said, speaking to reporters Thursday. “And then when we do have those high-risk procedures such as bronchoscopies, different types of procedures in hospitals, we won’t have enough.”

Possamai said he’s appalled Canada could have concerns over supply of the masks 17 years after SARS.

“If now they’re saying their concern is over lack of supplies this shows an appalling lack of competence. Heads should roll,” he said. “They’ve known since SARS that the supplies of Personal Protective Equipment were going to be used in great amounts during a large outbreak.”

Alex McKeen

Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen

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