The outbreak at Fairview Personal Care Home in Brandon is proving more complex than originally reported yesterday in The Brandon Sun.
As of late yesterday afternoon, Fairview had 21 COVID-19-positive residents and eight COVID-19-positive staff, all on the fourth floor, with the exception of one, according to Prairie Mountain Health (PMH) region’s chief executive officer, Penny Gilson.
But while it seemed the rapid response system deployed meant the outbreak was contained and the horrors reported from other personal care homes in Manitoba and beyond would not be repeated, two unions representing health-care workers are sounding the alarm.
The essential issues are about personal protective equipment (PPE) and lack of cohorts in the facility.
"People are terrified, just terrified, in there," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU), which represents health-care workers at Fairview.
"I had a health-care aide on Saturday night, call me. I’d been back and forth with someone else, because, of course, this doesn’t stop at 11 o’clock at night. This goes through the night when people are working."
The health-care aide called Gawronsky on their break at Fairview. They told Gawronsky all they had as PPE was a procedure mask, a set of goggles and gloves. They said they weren’t protected like the paramedics who were deployed to the facility.
"And (they) said, ‘Michelle, I can’t go home. I’m not protected enough. I’m not protecting my family.’ And (they) just burst into tears. I said, ‘Where are you going to go?’"
The aide told her they didn’t know. What they knew was they couldn’t go home to their family. I can’t take the risk, they said.
"What do I tell these people?" asked Gawronsky.
"It’s unbelievable to me. Unbelievable. It just floors me that we’ve got staff going into COVID-positive wards — whether they’re housekeeping, whether they’re health-care aides — they are going in beside a paramedic from the Rapid Response Unit, who is there showing up in fully suited PPE, N95 face masks, face shields, gowns, medical gloves, booties … And they’re walking in beside a health-care aide and a housekeeper that has eye goggles and a procedure mask."
The MGEU is calling on the government to provide health-care workers, especially those working at personal care homes, with the same access to the same important PPE.
"They should be treated no different than anyone else," said Gawronsky.
When she received the call from the health worker Saturday night, Gawronsky said she laid awake the rest of the night trying to figure out what to do for them.
"I tried to get a hold of (them) a couple of times. I understand (they) ended up getting a hotel room for the day and went to sleep, to stay away from (their) family. I have no proof of that, though. It’s just hearsay, at this point," said Gawronsky.
Bob Moroz is the president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals —the union that represents roughly 800 rural paramedics in the province, including those who have been redeployed from their regular duties to Fairview and Gilbert Plains Personal Care Home to help out.
Moroz said he’s hearing from the paramedics that there is a general lack of planning, no orientation as they come in, no sense of their actual duties, and no idea where the required supplies are in the facility.
"They’re reporting back to us that there continues to be a lack of clear guidelines for the health and safety of both the staff and the residents. That is very alarming for our paramedics. They are experts in emergency care and assessments. When you hear a story from a paramedic that the situation in terms of safety in personal protective equipment is such that they’re concerned that they would even want to eat or drink anything for risk of having to use a restroom facility in a place like that is horrifying," said Moroz.
"I’ve heard that more than once."
Paramedics do have the PPE they need. That was planned early on, that paramedics would have the highest possible level of PPE. But not everybody in the facility has that same protection.
"It’s gotten to the point where every situation a paramedic enters is going to be COVID-positive, or COVID-suspect," said Moroz.
"When they arrive at a PCH (personal care home) and they see the level of personal protective equipment for the staff, whether it’s the health-care aides or anybody else or the nursing staff, which there’s just clearly not enough, otherwise our members wouldn’t be there … There is a definite discrepancy."
He said that introduces a different set of risks to paramedics.
"Not to belittle the risks to the workers who normally are at the PCH — that’s horrifying. And all unions have been pushing for improved safety protocols, improved access to PPE," said Moroz.
But PMH’s Gilson told the Sun via email that there is sufficient PPE at the site to meet current provincial infection prevention and control guidelines.
"In addition, staff are being fit tested for N95 masks which can be provided upon request following a point of care risk assessment," she said.
Another issue is the failure to create cohorts within the facility.
A worker called Gawronsky Monday night. They told her they’ve been working double shifts, trying to help out. They said "cohorting" of staff wasn’t happening.
"(They) said, ‘I’m working on a COVID floor, right now. I’m being moved. I’m not going home, I’m not changing, there’s no difference. The night shift that they’re going to put me on to when I’m volunteering is on a non-COVID ward.’ (They) said they should not be doing that. (They) said the workers that are caring for COVID-positive residents should be staying on that ward," Gawronsky said.
"But no, they’ve got them working in the COVID-positive wards with the residents and then walking onto a ward and assisting residents of another ward that has no COVID. That’s not going to help contain the virus inside the walls."
Both Gawronsky and Moroz are beyond themselves that the provincial government dropped the ball over the summer. While Manitoba had an easy go of it during the first wave of the pandemic, other jurisdictions did not. They see it as an absolute failure on the part of Premier Brian Pallister and Cameron Friesen, the province’s health minister, that, months later, those same horrifying scenarios are playing out in Manitoba.
Both say that everybody saw it coming.
"When paramedics reach out for help, because they’re really worried about their own safety, that shows me that something’s really wrong," said Moroz.
Gilson said: "There has been lots of education with staff in preparation for an unfortunate situation such as this one, but we recognize that when it does happen staff need additional supports. PMH has mobilized additional educational, mental health and general staffing support, including support from paramedics with the City of Brandon, which we are grateful for."
Gilson also said regular communication about the situation at the site is happening with all families, and PMH is committed to ongoing communication with the unions and staff to address any ongoing issues.
» Michele LeTourneau covers Indigenous matters for The Brandon Sun under the Local Journalism Initiative, a federally funded program that supports the creation of original civic journalism.