Nurses, lab workers, physicians among ‘alarming’ number of health-care workers with COVID-19

As the number of COVID-19 cases among health-care workers continues to rise in Ontario, clinicians say multiple factors could be fuelling the spike in various settings, from long-term care homes to laboratories — with risks beyond just patient care.

The latest provincial data shows 3,607 positive cases confirmed among health-care workers, making up nearly 17 per cent of all cases across Ontario. That’s up from around 10 per cent of all cases in early April.

That rise is “alarming,” said Dr. David Carr, a hospital emergency physician in Toronto.

“It’s frightening to work in a place where there are outbreaks, and you look to your left and your right and you feel like everyone’s doing the right thing.”

While the publicly-available numbers from the Ministry of Health don’t reveal a breakdown by profession, the latest available Public Health Ontario data provided to CBC News shows positive tests have been confirmed for:

  • 714 nurses.
  • 76 physicians.
  • 70 first responders, including paramedics and non-medical professions such as police.
  • 41 lab workers.
  • More than 2,700 others, including personal support workers, respiratory therapists, hospital cleaners, and instances where local public health units did not specify a specific profession.

With cases popping up in workers across the spectrum, Carr warned even the best efforts of front-line staff aren’t enough to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus among their peers within health-care settings.

In many hospital departments, he noted, shift-based workers are often arriving all at once, bringing large groups into tight quarters like change rooms and break rooms — indoor areas where there’s a clear risk of transmission.

“You have the majority of your staff showing up at the exact same time, putting their stuff in the fridge, getting changed, taking the elevator,” Carr said.

“At hospitals, we’re sitting in congregate areas, in close quarters. There’s just no space.”  

Long-term care home workers take part in a moment of silence and rally in front of Midland Gardens Care Community, in Toronto, on May 5, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Protective equipment remains a concern

While provincial data doesn’t reveal where each individual worker acquired the virus, including any settings outside of health care, the numbers do show several hundred outbreaks directly within long-term care facilities and hospital units.

At least nine health-care workers have also died of COVID-19, including a nurse, two hospital cleaners, and six personal support workers.

One of those, 61-year-old Leonard Rodriquez, was a long-time personal support worker in Toronto. His family blames his death on a lack of personal protective equipment provided by his employer, which forced him to buy his own masks at a dollar store.

Similar concerns have been common among health-care workers and CBC News has previously reported on staff rationing equipment and re-using masks at various facilities.

And even highly-trained professionals can make potentially-dangerous errors while taking off their personal protective equipment, noted Christine Nielsen, CEO of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science, the national certifying body for medical laboratory technologists and medical laboratory assistants.

“You can’t see a virus; it’s not like blood,” she said.

Leonard Rodriquez, a long-time Toronto personal support worker with Unifor, has died, the union confirmed. The 61-year-old worked at the supportive housing unit Access Apartments. 2:21

Province wants ‘further analysis’

So what can be done to boost safety for workers on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis?

Ensuring infection control protocols are followed to protect not only patients, but the workers themselves, is crucial, Carr stressed, including encouraging proper hand washing and doffing of protective equipment, and maintaining distance from colleagues after their gear is off.

He added more health-care facilities and departments also need to stagger shift start times as much as possible to ensure there is no influx of staff arriving at — or congregating in — health-care settings.

There’s also greater “peace of mind” for health-care professionals as provincial testing efforts are ramping up, according to Nielsen.

When asked by CBC News on Thursday about the rising number of infected health-care workers, and what additional efforts the province could make to test and protect them, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams didn’t divulge any specific plans.

The province has asked to have “further analysis undertaken in that regard … to see if there’s anything we can do to flatten that curve and keep it down as well,” he said.

No matter how many precautions are taken, front-line staff working through this pandemic will always face some risks.

“They have the average exposure the public has — then they go to a health-care facility,” Nielsen said.

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