Almost half of Winnipeg care home workers waiting to be fitted for new N95 respirators: WRHA

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says 55 per cent of health-care workers at city nursing homes have been fitted for N95 respirators, after the WRHA paused its testing program in March.

Workers must be fit-tested to make sure N95s seal properly; that's been done for only 55% of long-care staff

N95 respirators have a higher level of filtration, allowing health-care workers to breathe safely while working with patients who have COVID-19 or other airborne illnesses. But a special device is required to test workers for fit. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Just over half of health-care workers at Winnipeg nursing homes have been fitted for N95 respirators, after the city's health authority paused its testing program in March and was only able to restart it at the end of September.

The decision was made at the start of the pandemic in order to prioritize fit-testing for health-care staff who perform aerosol-generating procedures, such as intubation, a spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said.

When supply chains for the N95s changed due to the pandemic, new brands were allotted for care homes in August — respirators staff hadn't previously been fitted for, essentially putting some nursing homes to Square 1.

The result is that as of Dec. 8, only 55 per cent of Winnipeg long-care sector staff have been fitted for the respirators. 

"I find it very shameful," said Debbie Boissonneault, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 204.

"We saw across the provinces that nursing homes were being hit big with COVID-19, so it is very shameful of this government to pause something they knew was coming. They knew a second wave was coming."

Boissonneault's union represents workers at over a dozen nursing homes. CUPE says workers are frequently calling to say they haven't been fitted and don't have access to N95s. 

Debbie Boissonneault, the president of CUPE 204, said the province should have moved faster on fitting all staff for N95s. (Debbie Boissonneault/Facebook)

The health authority provided an overall percentage of workers fitted for N95s as of Dec. 8, but did not have a breakdown by nursing home available.

N95 respirators have a higher level of filtration than other face coverings, allowing health-care workers to breathe safely while working with patients who have COVID-19 or other illnesses that involve a risk of airborne infection. 

For the respirators to work properly, health-care workers must be fit-tested to make sure the N95s seal properly. The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority loans fit-testing devices to facilities. Staff have to be tested every few years.

Data provided by the WRHA shows only two nursing homes were fitted with the new N95s on Sept. 29 — a point when COVID-19 case counts had been steadily rising across the province and outbreaks had been declared at four personal care homes in Winnipeg.

By October, the fit-testing devices had been loaned to another 16 of Winnipeg's 38 nursing homes for testing staff.

A spokesperson for the WRHA said the authority originally created a schedule for the devices for September to December, but had to change it to prioritize homes as more outbreaks were declared.

Some homes have testing machines

Some personal care homes have their own fit-testing resources, including homes owned by Revera — one of Canada's largest care home operators, and the company that manages Parkview Place and Maples Long Term Care Home, the sites of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Manitoba to date.

Deer Lodge Centre, Misericordia Place and Riverview are among other homes that have their own resources.

However, the WRHA stepped in to help fit-test workers at Parkview and Maples during their outbreaks.

The CEO of Park Manor care home in Winnipeg told CBC earlier this month that it took until the end of November for his staff to fitted for N95s, which he said contributed to a massive outbreak where the majority of residents became infected with COVID-19. 

Fit-testing escalated in November and December. While every home has been visited at least once, not all workers at each home have had the testing.

Health authority spokesperson Paul Turenne said the aim is to have nursing home staff, as well as acute and community health-care workers, all fitted by the end of January. He said provincewide, about 55 per cent of those workers had also been tested as of Dec. 8.

The current provincial standard does not make N95s mandatory in personal care homes unless an aerosol-generating medical procedure is occurring.

Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer for Manitoba Shared Health, said that while N95s are not mandatory for nursing home staff, she understands that some staff want to wear them. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer for Manitoba Shared Health, said on Thursday that the agency's approach is to "follow the science" when it comes to personal protective equipment use and distribution.

"But I understand the fears of staff," she said.

"Part of the problem early on when we had supply issues and disruption in procurement and we started receiving multiple different kinds of PPE ... it became complicated with the fit-testing, and we are accelerating that process."

Right now, care home staff can request an N95 mask and Shared Health will work with the home to ensure one is provided, Siragusa said.

Boissonneault wonders why the testing wasn't done sooner.

"This has been going on since the summer. Why are they waiting for so long to test people? This is ludicrous.… Really, these people should have been tested right off the hop in the spring," she said. 

Kevin Engstrom, a spokesperson for Shared Health, said the N95s acquired in August were specifically identified for use in long-term care.

With files from Aidan Geary