An Op-Ed By Linda Silas and Darlene Jackson

As we approach the March 11 anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic, nurses across Canada are at their breaking point. We are exhausted, burned out – and angry.

Nurses are on the front lines of the pandemic and our health-care system every day. We see its problems in brutal detail and we have the experience to know what’s needed. We have repeatedly called on decision-makers to address critical staffing shortages and provide basic protections to keep workers safe.

We continue to be disregarded, and the result has been devastating.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, the number of COVID-19 cases among health workers has tripled since July 2020. As of January 15, 65,920 health workers had been infected with the COVID-19 virus, representing 9.5 per cent of all infections in Canada. More than 40 health workers are known to have died from the illness.

In our troubled long-term care system, insufficient staffing and safety protocols have contributed to a national tragedy. About 25,000 health-care worker infections are in long-term care. More than 14,000 vulnerable residents have died from COVID-19, representing about 70 per cent of all deaths in Canada.

It didn’t have to be this way.

As early as January of last year, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions began urging governments across Canada to heed the lessons of SARS and adopt a precautionary approach. This meant assuming the virus was airborne and protecting health workers – potential vectors of transmission – accordingly.

As soon as it became apparent that COVID-19 would reach Manitoba, the Manitoba Nurses Union (MNU) set to work on strengthening personal protective equipment (PPE) standards and access policies.

In July of 2020, MNU negotiated its first memorandum of agreement with Shared Health. This agreement established a joint PPE committee with representatives from the employer and government; required all nurses be provided an N95 respirator when working with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients; and recognized nurses’ right to use their clinical expertise when conducting a point-of-care risk assessment to determine the appropriate level of protection.

The agreement was enhanced this January, ensuring nurses are now automatically provided with an N95 respirator in defined situations.

Despite similar efforts by unions across the country, health-care workers have still been put at unacceptable risk, with implications for their families, patients and communities.

It took the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) until January 2021 to acknowledge what unions and many experts have said all along: health-care workers are at risk of airborne transmission when in close proximity to an infected person. Yet PHAC still does not require health-care workers in COVID-19 units and "hot zones" to wear protection from airborne transmission, such as N95 respirators.

Similarly, provinces across Canada have failed to update their guidance to adequately reflect what we now know about the virus and how its spreads. Only Quebec has followed the scientific evidence to its natural conclusion: as of Feb. 11, 2021, Quebec requires health-care workers in COVID-19 hot zones to wear an N95 respirator or superior level of protection.

As new variants circulate in Canada, dramatically increasing the rate of transmission, burned out health-care workers are under even more pressure. Without action, health staffing, which is already in short supply, could become depleted even further.

We must not let this happen.

We know from experts and evidence that there is a desperate need for more staff, not less. The long-standing cycle of budget cuts, short staffing and higher workloads has eroded the health-care workforce and quality of patient care. A major investment in the retention and recruitment of nurses is needed now, or it is likely we will see an exodus from the profession as burnout takes its toll.

It’s time for governments across Canada to take their heads out of the sand and show their respect and appreciation for health-care workers. A good first step would be to act on our calls for better workplace safety and safe staffing.

Had decision-makers heeded nurses’ warnings prior to the pandemic, perhaps many more lives could have been saved.

Linda Silas is a nurse and president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions. Darlene Jackson is a registered nurse and president of the Manitoba Nurses Union.

Posted to Winnipeg Free Press on March 8th, 2021