HHS staff told to use masks and other PPE longer to conserve 'precarious' supply

The city of Hamilton is also accepting donations of PPE to help frontline workers stay safe.

'Conservation now is critical,' reads a statement from the hospital

Hamilton Health Sciences has directed staff to extend the use of respirators, masks and face shields as the province's supply of PPE continues to be strained by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) is extending the use of personal protective equipment in some sections of its hospitals as the supply of gear continues to remain "precarious" amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

That means staff will be wearing items such as masks, respirators and face shields while tending to several patients.

"The availability of personal protective equipment and particularly masks, continues to be precarious day-by-day," read a statement from HHS. "We are extending the use of PPE as the risk of the disease grows."

Premier Doug Ford is also raising the alarm about the province's supply of protective equipment.

"The reality is, if there's a massive surge of people coming into our hospitals in the next two weeks our supply lines will be seriously challenged," he said during an update Monday.

Ford's comments follow a visit to a medical supply warehouse Saturday where he said he took a "hard look" at the inventory.

"The hard truth is, the more time we have the more lives we can save," said the premier.

Nurses concerned about extended PPE use

Nurses at HHS have raised concerns about the possibility of re-use and extended use of PPE — masks and respirators in particular — saying it's unsafe and that repeatedly taking off and putting on the same items leads to a higher risk of contamination.

Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association (ONA), said she's heard about nurses being threatened with discipline or fines for using multiple masks and others being directed to use only one or two during their entire 12-hour shift, something she described as "ridiculous."

If masks become soiled or wet, which can happen through regular breathing, they lose effectiveness, she explained.

"Some of this rationing we were seeing was very, very concerning."

Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association, says some nurses in Ontario were threatened with fines or discipline if they used multiple masks during a shift. (ONA/Twitter)

In response, the ONA worked with the province and medical officer of health, releasing a joint statement Monday that outlined several steps to acknowledge the opinions of frontline staff and protect them through risk assessments and a pledge that appropriate PPE, including N95 respirators, which will be supplied if necessary.

"During the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that the appropriate steps are taken to protect the health and safety of all health care workers, patients and the public in Ontario," it read in part.

Part of the directive is an acknowledgement that conserving PPE is important.

HHS says it has educated its teams about safe extended use and re-use "should it eventually be necessary."

That statement contradicts a previous response sent to CBC on March 26, which said HHS's conservation approach included "limited re-use of N95 respirators" as well as extended use of N95 respirators and surgical masks.

The hospital's updated statement Tuesday noted the situation around supply is fluid and said "At this time we are not advising staff to re-use PPE as we await new deliveries of PPE supplies."

HHS describes the supply chains for protective gear as "extremely strained" and says the approach attempts to balance its current stock with demand.

"Conservation now is critical to ensure we can continue to provide the materials our staff and physicians will need for the duration of this unprecedented situation."

The hospital is also calling for donations and asking people to email PPEdontations@hhsc.ca.

City accepting donations for frontline workers

The city of Hamilton is also asking the public for help with PPE.

Residents who have items they want to hand over are asked to call 905-546-2424 ext. 2257 or email ppe@hamilton.ca.

A spokesperson said more details about what exactly the city is seeking will be released tomorrow.

A call to the number above led to an automated response asking for a person's contact name and number as well as a product description and whether or not the boxes of donations are sealed.

"On behalf of the City of Hamilton, thank you for supporting our frontline workers," it says before the tone to leave a message.

The Hamilton Paramedic Service, meanwhile, has already been accepting contributions of everything from boxes of N95 respirators to hand sanitizer produced by Dillon's Small Batch Distillers.

with files from Bobby Hristova