Manitoba

Winnipeg nurse told she didn't need N95 fears she may have long-term illness after getting COVID-19

A nurse who has been diagnosed with post-viral fatigue syndrome says she can't carry groceries, work out or complete a whole shift in her job as a nurse.

'I'm unable to work, but I'm not their problem anymore,' says nurse who worked in St. Boniface 'green zone'

The nurse believes she caught COVID-19 while working in St. Boniface Hospital's medicine ward. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

A nurse who believes she caught COVID-19 while working at St. Boniface Hospital — in an area where she was told she didn't need an N95 mask — says she wants better compensation from Shared Health, fearing she might never be able to return to work full time. 

"We're down one income and I can't continue my career and it's of no consequence to them," she said. 

CBC is protecting her identity because she fears career repercussions for speaking out.

The nurse said during March this year, she was working in the medicine ward in a "green zone" of the hospital, where she was told she didn't have to wear a highly protective N95 respirator.

According to Shared Health, a green zone is a hospital area with patients who don't meet the criteria for COVID-19 testing or who have been deemed recovered from the illness. The colour-coded zones indicate what type of personal protective equipment is required.

She said a week later, patients she cared for in that area tested positive for COVID-19. When she got tested, she was positive too. 

"It was pretty scary because I do have asthma," she said. "I was just shocked." 

The nurse said she worked in a 'green zone,' where she was told an N95 respirator wasn't required. A week later, patients she cared for in that area tested positive for COVID-19. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

In an emailed statement, Shared Health says it can't speak to the specific circumstances of a particular staff member. It says guidelines for personal protective equipment are developed with input from infection prevention and control experts.

The guidelines have evolved over the course of the pandemic and individuals providing care in a green zone are required to wear a medical mask and eye protection, a spokesperson said.

CBC also contacted the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, which operates St. Boniface Hospital. It said it can't comment on specific individual cases to the public and referred questions to Shared Health. 

Post-viral fatigue syndrome

The nurse said after her two weeks of quarantine, she still felt sick. At night, she wasn't able to sleep and had intense heart palpitations for hours.

After getting assessed at the Wellness Institute in Winnipeg, she was diagnosed with post-viral fatigue syndrome — a condition that causes her to be constantly drained. 

"You can't get out of bed for days.… It's just so different from what I normally was like," she said. 

The nurse said she was diagnosed with post-viral fatigue syndrome and now can't perform tasks like carrying groceries, going for a walk or working out. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

She's been unable to do activities that require exertion, such as carrying groceries, going for long walks, doing yard work or working out.

She says she's had to pull over while driving because she got tired and has cancelled social plans, such as leaving a family cabin retreat last week.

"I had to leave four days early because I just couldn't be there anymore — it was just too exhausting. You don't want to be that one person who doesn't always feel well, right?" 

The nurse said she's feeling better now compared to the start of the summer, but the symptoms are still there. 

When she tried returning to the hospital, she was unable to work a full eight-hour shift, she said. 

"I was thinking, 'I'm going to wake up one day and … [the symptoms are] just going to be gone,' and that never happened," the nurse said.

She said she hopes she can shift back to her regular activity levels within six months to a year, but with post-viral fatigue syndrome, that's not guaranteed.

"You can't just pick up your return to work where you left off. So I would have to be on disability. I don't know what would happen if I'm unable to," she said. "That's super scary."

'It's just really sickening'

The nurse said she wants to hold Shared Health accountable, and wants monetary compensation from the provincial health organization.

She said she's aware of five other nurses in situations similar to hers, who caught COVID-19 months ago and still can't return to work.

"It's just really sickening to not be the only nurse that this has happened to," she said. 

St. Boniface Hospital has struggled with staff shortages in recent weeks, with emergency staff warning about dangerous ER wait times and a dire shortage of beds. Last week, a man died after going into cardiac arrest while waiting hours for care.

Asked on Wednesday about her government's response to staff concerns, former health minister Heather Stefanson declined to call it a "crisis."

"I won't say that it's a crisis, but we are responding to the serious issues that are facing our health-care system day in, day out," Stefanson said at a news conference announcing her bid for the leadership of the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives.

According to a report by the Canadian Institute of Health Information released Thursday, the number of COVID-19 infections in health-care workers has increased since January this year. 

As of June 12, there had been 2,491 COVID-19 infections among health-care workers in Manitoba, accounting for 4.6 per cent of the province's total cases to that point, the CIHI report says.

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, which runs St. Boniface Hospital, says it can't comment on specific individual cases to the public. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Shared Health says staff who believe they contracted COVID-19 through a work-related exposure can make a claim for workers' compensation benefits or apply for benefits through their employer's health insurance. 

The nurse said the Workers Compensation Board of Manitoba accepted her claim and allowed her to return to work gradually but because she can't work full-time hours, she's lost her benefits.

She said six sessions of physiotherapy — treatment she needs for her condition — were covered, but she's on her last session and will soon have to pay out of pocket.

In early August, she decided to quit her job to pursue another opportunity.

"I feel like I was really wronged by the whole situation and now they're getting off scot-free. Now I'm unable to work, but I'm not their problem anymore."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peggy Lam

Reporter

Peggy is a reporter based in Winnipeg. She has worked for the CBC in Vancouver, Toronto, St. John's, Kitchener-Waterloo and Edmonton. Got a story idea? Email her at peggy.lam@cbc.ca or tweet her @peggylam_

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