A registered nurse is sounding the alarm after at least two Toronto hospitals have started to limit face masks for front-line health-care workers amid a mounting crisis over the lack of protective gear that places medical staff at risk in the battle against COVID-19.
The nurse, who works at a Toronto-area hospital, said there is currently a “massive shortage” of personal protective equipment (PPE), most importantly surgical masks, and hospitals are starting to limit the amount of PPE handed out to nurses and doctors per shift.
“We’re scared. This has never happened,” the nurse said, adding that they have heard from colleagues across the Greater Toronto Area. Global News is keeping the name of the nurse confidential because they are not allowed to speak publicly about the issue.
“Because of the scale in which we are working, there just isn’t the proper amount of protective equipment,” the nurse said. “We’re all terrified, and that goes for nurses, doctors and any other bedside health professionals.”
Surgical masks and N95 respirators can be life-saving for nurses and doctors, as they are the most effective barriers against large droplets expelled by talking, coughing or sneezing — one of the main ways COVID-19 is transmitted.
Health officials in Ontario, and across Canada, have begun a desperate hunt for N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns, gloves and face shields to stave off looming shortages.
More than a dozen health-care workers around the Greater Toronto Area have recently tested positive for COVID-19. And without adequate supplies, patient safety could also be put at risk.
“This is going to be bad if we’re going to be expected to go from patient room to patient room with contaminated PPE,” the nurse said.
Concerns over shortages of PPE come as the total number of COVID-19 patients in Ontario has shot up to 688, with health officials confirming 100 more cases of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday morning — the single largest daily increase.
The province also recorded its ninth death.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott has insisted the province has an “adequate” supply of PPE but is working with the federal government to obtain more supplies, like N95 respirators. The province has also appealed to businesses to reach out to the government if they are able to help produce medical supplies.
“We want everyone to know that we have an adequate supply of personal protective equipment,” Elliott told reporters Monday. “We are getting the supplies in.”
Global News obtained an internal email, dated March 23, from Humber River Hospital the was sent from president and CEO Barbara Collins to all staff, physicians and volunteers.
Humber River spokesperson Joe Gorman said in a statement that the hospital was about to move forward with the new measures but was asked to “hold off.”
“Many Toronto hospitals have moved to a strategy of providing two masks per shift to health-care workers,” Gorman said. “Humber was about to follow suit but then was asked to hold off until Ontario health comes up with definitive guidance on this.
“We are currently in a holding pattern, i.e., we have not limited mask supplies to two per shift but hope that this will be sorted out today.”
At Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital, staff are being limited to two face masks per shift to prevent the hospital from running out completely.
“Going forward, staff will be provided with two masks upon entry to the hospital to use over the course of their shift,” Dr. Janine McCready, an infectious diseases physician, said in a statement.
“We made this change out of an abundance of caution and, based on the experience of other jurisdictions, feel this is an important measure for the health and safety of both staff and patients as the number of COVID-19 cases increase in our community.”
The hospital launched a PPE drive on Monday, asking for the public to donate unused, unexpired medical supplies like face masks, protective gloves, goggles and gowns.
Health officials in Windsor and Essex County are also searching for protective gear amid possible shortages.
Urgent calls for more supplies
Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, said she has heard from members across the country who are concerned that front-line workers don’t have access to the necessary protective equipment.
Silas said the situation facing health-care workers could get worse as COVID-19 sickens more people. As of March 25, there are more than 3,100 cases in Canada and at least 30 deaths, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
“We hear from federal and provincial governments that they’ve ordered millions of PPE, so we do not understand why employers are not making available to their health-care workers what they need today,” she said. “Tomorrow might be too late.
“Make sure you protect your health-care employees because if they get sick, they are gone for at least 14 days,” she said. “And our system cannot handle that.”
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario said health organizations everywhere are experiencing shortages of equipment and called for more supplied as cases are expected to increase.
“Health organizations, across all sectors, are reporting shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) – a situation governments must urgently address,” the RNAO said in a statement. “We are in a war and the enemy is the COVID-19 virus.
“We must be prepared for an exponential increase in the demand for PPE assuming worst-case scenarios for the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement said. “We all hope to avoid worst-case scenarios, but we must be prepared for them.”
Late Wednesday, Ontario Power Generation said it would donate 500,000 surgical masks and 75,000 N95 respirators to help address equipment shortages at hospitals.
Ontario announces new funding for PPE
Ontario announced late Wednesday afternoon it’s introducing a $17-billion package to support the health sector, people and businesses through the COVID-19 outbreak.
The new spending includes a $1-billion pandemic contingency fund, nearly $1 billion more for hospitals, and $75 million for more personal protective equipment for front-line workers.
Ontario’s health ministry said in a statement to Global News the provinces has actively procured 12 million more gloves, one million more N95 respirators and nearly six million more surgical masks.
The federal government is providing another 500,000 N95 respirators, one million masks and 750,000 face shields, in addition to other supplies, according to the province.
“We expect these supplies to be delivered at various times over the coming days and weeks,” Hayley Chazan, spokesperson for health minister Christine Elliott, said in an email.
— With a file from Global News’ Sean O’Shea