Pandemic highlighting need for better support for front-line healthcare workers
SUDBURY -- Advocates for front-line healthcare workers in long-term care homes are speaking out about the dangers employees are facing as COVID-19 continues to spread in nursing homes throughout the country.
Dot Klein is the co-chair of the Sudbury Branch of the Ontario Health Coalition. With decades of experience on the frontline as a registered nurse, she sympathizes with her colleagues.
"The PSW’s, the front-line, is really fearful," Klein said. "They’re concerned. They are not really being, their input is not really being requested by the management in the health and safety aspect."
A top concern amongst staff is that COVID-19 is often asymptomatic for the first week, meaning it's possible to unknowingly spread the disease to the most vulnerable, especially with a shortage throughout the province of personal protective equipment (PPE).
"There is controversy over what mask, who wears a mask; who doesn’t wear a mask; what type of mask they should be wearing; how often it should be changed. That is what the management has to be much clearer and provide the protective equipment for these personnel," said Klein.
The Ontario Health Coalition is also calling on increased testing in homes. On Monday, health officials issued new guidelines to test everyone with symptoms in the event of an outbreak.
"That is good. It means that there can be testing and tracking," said Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition. "At this point, it's not very clear whether they're doing the tracking, and it needs to happen."
Klein also notes that while these workers remain extremely dedicated to their residents, they have to be mindful of their own health.
"They’re concerned for themselves. They’re concerned for their residents. They are very, very dedicated and they give 150 per cent of their energies to their residents," said Klein. "They also have a life beyond the long-term care facility. And they go home, they have children, they have grandchildren."
The province has faced a shortage of personal support workers for years. Mehra says the challenges COVID-19 is bringing is making it far more difficult to retain staff, highlighting the low pay.
"This is overwhelming to staff, especially in the homes where there are also outbreaks among the staff. They were short-staffed before this. If you can just imagine what's happening now in the homes, it really is incredibly difficult. It's hard to put words to it," said Mehra.
The official Ontario opposition, led by NDP MPP Andrea Horwath, is calling on the provincial government to introduce a host of new measures as increased support for frontline staff. These include using emergency measures to ensure all staff has proper access to PPE, as well as a wage increase for PSWs to $22/hr.
"Those folks have been underpaid for a very long time," Horwath said. "It's hard to get people to actually become personal support workers. In fact, we know that people train for this kind of work in college and then don't actually go into the field because they are really hard jobs and the pay is terrible."
The Ford government has announced new levels of support in long-term homes, including bringing in non-clinician staff as extra help.
Mehra says workers must be fully-trained in order to make an impact.
"That’s the opposite of what we were asking for," she said. "I get why they are doing it, because the homes are desperate, but in order to actually get the workforce in there, they need to be trained people. They need to be able to deal with infectious diseases. They need to be able to deal with complex and ever more complex [care]."
In this era of daily press conferences, Horwath says actions speak louder than words.
"People are saying a lot of great words around what heroes these healthcare workers are, these nurses and doctors and PSWs, and what brave heroes they are in the midst of this pandemic. And I agree with all of those things, but words aren't enough. Let's show them by putting in place a package of changes that really support them and the work they're doing," said Horwath.
The Ontario Health Coalition is keeping track of the number of residents and staff infected with COVID-19 throughout the province on its website.