New Brunswick

Oromocto doctor says physicians 'must have freedom' to sound alarm for safety risks

An Oromocto doctor is speaking out against Vitalité Health Network’s silencing of employees concerned with the COVID-19 prevention and control protocols at the hospital in the centre of the ongoing outbreak in northern New Brunswick.

Nurses federation launches investigation into why 16,000 health-care workers infected with COVID-19

Dr. Brian Reid says physicians must be free to speak out when faced with safety concerns. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

An Oromocto doctor is speaking out against Vitalité Health Network's silencing of employees concerned with the COVID-19 prevention and control protocols at the hospital in the centre of the ongoing outbreak in northern New Brunswick.

Dr. Brian Reid is the latest voice to criticize the health authority for muzzling staff after employees at the Campbellton Regional Hospital were ordered not to speak to the media and a doctor retracted her comments about the working conditions on the COVID-19 unit.

"Physicians have the right and the duty to speak out if they're concerned for their safety, patient safety or safety of their colleagues," Reid told Radio-Canada on Tuesday.

"We must have the freedom to do that."

In the face of criticism, Vitalité has maintained it's following the guidelines of the New Brunswick public health and the Public Health Agency of Canada — protections now under scrutiny after the Canadian Federation of Nurses Union announced this week an investigation into why thousands of Canadian health-care workers have become infected.

More than 16,000 health-care workers have tested positive across the country. According to the federation, health-care professionals account for 19 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in Canada — triple the global average.

"If you had an electrical company that was found to have 16,000 electricians so severely injured on the job that they couldn't work for up to two weeks or longer and some of them died, what would happen to that company?" Reid said. 

'It would be shut down immediately."

Doctor's concerns

Last Thursday, Dr. Vona MacMillan spoke publicly about her unease before her shifts on the COVID-19 unit. 

She said there must be some issue with the prevention measures after 10 employees tested positive for the respiratory illness since the outbreak in the region began in late May. The health authority has since said one case was a false positive.

Last Thursday, Dr. Vona MacMillan called for the wider use of N95 masks for Campbellton hospital staff treating COVID-19 patients. The next day, Vitalité released a statement saying the doctor retracted her comments and apologized. (Serge Bouchard/Radio-Canada)

MacMillan, a family physician based in Charlo, called on Vitalité to allow staff to wear N95 masks while treating COVID-positive patients, regardless of the procedure being performed.

On Friday afternoon, Vitalité released a statement saying MacMillan "wishes" to retract her comments and apologize.

Last Thursday, CBC News published a story detailing the fears of three health-care workers who say they feel unsafe under the existing prevention and control protocols. They said they fear for their safety and the safety of vulnerable family members at home.

CBC News agreed not to identify the workers, who said they have been warned by Vitalité not to talk to the news media.

Those employees say staff were refused wider use N95 masks while treating COVID-positive patients beyond aerosol-generating medical procedures. 

Reid said the N95 outperforms surgical masks, the alternative given to COVID-19 unit staff, and MacMillan is "medically correct" even though it doesn't align with the guidelines.

He said public health officials want "good, solid data," which isn't available for the novel coronavirus. So, he said, we must err on the side of caution.

Lessons from SARS

The Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions announced Monday Mario Possamai, former senior advisor to the SARS Commission, will lead the investigation into the alleged lack of protection for health-care workers during the pandemic.

The inquiry into the 2003 SARS epidemic results into 92 recommendations to the Ontario provincial government. A key recommendation made by the commissioner, Justice Archie Campbell, was to ensure the protection of health-care workers was a top priority if another epidemic occurred.

The federation is probing why the recommendations have not been adopted for the COVID-19 pandemic, the result of another coronavirus.

"Several governments and employers are really going to have questions to answer after the investigation," said federation president Linda Silas.

Linda Silas is the president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions. (CBC)

Silas said all employees who treat COVID-19 patients should have equipment to protect themselves from droplets as well as transmission through air.

The federation's investigation aims to demonstrate the importance of offering all workers additional protection, including N95 masks, against the risk of transmission by air, something the SARS commission indicated took a year to determine was the case.

"Do you ask a firefighter to only put the minimum equipment to jump into a fire when you don't know the cause of the fire?" Silas said. "Today, we do not know 100 per cent of the transmission of COVID-19."

Vitalité accused of muzzling staff

A former health manager and a former board member accused Vitalité of silencing doctors and controlling the public message under outgoing president and CEO Gilles Lanteigne.

"We must admit that for appearances, it is as if we had forced her to retract," said retired Dr. Louis-Marie Simard, the former president and chief executive officer of the former Beauséjour Health Authority, which pre-dated Vitalité.

"If that's what has been done, twisting your arm is certainly not a good management practice."

In Simard's view, such control of the public message is dangerous for democracy and for patient confidence in the health-care system.

Nine staff at the Campbellton Regional Hospital have tested positive for COVID-19. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Norma McGraw, who resigned in February as vice-chair of the Vitalité Health Network's board of directors in protest over health reform plans, said she's not surprised to hear about MacMillan's case.

"This doctor, if she transgressed the communication channels, it is because she felt preoccupied ... It is a cry of alarm. Has it been listened to? I imagine not, otherwise there would not have been the retraction," she said.

The president of the New Brunswick Medical Society said Friday following the statement that the society supports doctors expressing their opinions.

"The New Brunswick Medical Society supports physicians expressing clinical opinions pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic," Dr. Chris Goodyear said in an emailed statement.

"These are challenging times for health-care providers; asking critical questions about guidelines and the availability of specialized equipment is certainly appropriate. We encourage an open dialogue with both regional health authorities and the province's physicians."

With files from Serge Bouchard of Radio-Canada


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