A B.C. union representing thousands of people who work with seniors is calling for an enhancement to the type of protective equipment provided to many front-line health-care workers.
The BCGEU wants to see N95 masks used more widely and is calling for employers to provide them to all frontline healthcare workers.
However, Interior Health says that’s not necessary to protect staff.
BCGEU president Stephanie Smith said workers are raising concerns about the type of personal protective equipment they are being issued.
“They tend to not be N95 masks, they are surgical masks,” Smith said.
The union feels it’s better to err on the side of being too cautious. At stake, the BCGEU says, is the protection of staff and their vulnerable patients.
“Anything that can be done should be done. I don’t think we can afford to wait for proof,” Smith said.
“We need to overreact and that means using the precautionary principle: assuming that it is transmissible, assuming that it is transmitted through the air and providing the highest level of protection possible.”
That’s not the direction health-care providers are getting from the province, which is telling front-line staff “an N95 respirator is only required when performing aerosol-generating medical procedures,” on COVID patients.
The Provincial Health Services Authority says COVID-19 is primarily spread by droplets “when a person coughs, sneezes, and talks or sings,” not through airborne transmission, so tighter-fitting N95 masks “are generally not required to protect from COVID-19,” unless you are doing an aerosol-generating medical procedure.
Interior Health’s chief medical officer, Dr. Albert de Villiers said not using N95 masks more widely is not an issue of money, but science.
“For the general workers in long-term care it is not needed because COVID doesn’t spread the same way like TB or measles,” de Villiers said.
However, other experts disagree with the BC government’s assessment of the way COVID-19 is primarily spread.
Okanagan long-term care facilities facing major outbreaks
The call for wider use of N95 masks comes as some Okanagan long-term care facilities are facing significant outbreaks.
A long-term care worker in Vernon, who did not want to do an on-camera interview over concerns it could impact their job, contacted Global News to report they had not been provided with an N95 mask on request.
It is something the worker thinks should change to protect both staff and residents at COVID-19-positive facilities.
McKinney Place long-term care in Oliver had 75 cases in residents and staff as of Tuesday, while Heritage Square long-term care in Vernon had 30 cases.
Those are just two of the seven Okanagan facilities currently dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks.
Two organizations managing four of the Okanagan seniors facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks, Kaigo Retirement Communities and The Good Samaritan Society, both say they are following provincial directives which state that N95 masks are only required for aerosol-generating procedures on COVID patients.
“Certainly N95 masks have a place. However, they are used for aerosol-generating procedures and right now we do not have any aerosol-generating procedures currently at our sites and therefore are not using N95 masks,” said Wendy Calhoun, director of operations for Kaigo Retirement Communities.
“We take direction from the health authority in regards to personal protective equipment and we are following their guidelines. They are the same guidelines throughout the province. Certainly, we feel confident they are the guidelines that we need to be following at this time.”
Along with Heritage Square, Kaigo manages Creekside Landing long-term care in Vernon, where four cases have been identified.
The Good Samaritan Society operates Village by the Station in Penticton and Mountainview Village in Kelowna which are experiencing outbreaks. As of Tuesday, Village by the Station had recorded nine cases and Mountainview Village had sixteen.
McKinney Place in Oliver is run by Interior Health.