New Brunswick

Employees at Shannex retirement complexes, nursing homes must wear non-medical masks

Shannex employees will soon be required to wear non-medical masks while at work, according to a memo sent to all employees Tuesday.

New directive comes as public health officials begin recommending wearing non-medical masks in some situations

Employees at Shannex facilities, such as these two facilities in Fredericton, will soon have to wear non-medical masks at work, according to a company memo. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Shannex employees are now required to wear non-medical masks while at work, according to a memo sent to all employees Tuesday.

The company, which offers home care services and operates retirement and long-term care homes in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario, is also asking its employees to help it find more non-medical masks, as it builds a supply.

The memo, which is from Shannex executives in all three provinces, cites updated guidance around whether people should be wearing masks or face-coverings while out in public.

"Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer of Canada, has stated that wearing a non-medical mask, even if you have no symptoms, is an additional measure that can protect others around you in situations where physical distancing is difficult to maintain," the memo says.

"Wearing a non-medical mask has not been proven to protect the person wearing it. It is an additional way that you can protect others."

Requiring employees to wear masks "is an important added protection," but staff members must still practice physical distancing, wash their hands and follow public health measures outside of work, according to Lisa Snodgrass, an infection control specialist with Shannex.

"It is important to note that the non-medical masks will not be used with residents who are under any infection control precautions as directed by public health and our own clinical team," Snodgrass wrote in an emailed statement. 

"Appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) must be worn by the team members in those circumstances."

No one from the company was made available for an interview on Wednesday.

A Shannex memo to employees notes updated guidance from Canada's top public health officer in announcing that employees will soon be required to wear non-medical masks at work. (Shannex)

The Shannex directive comes after news this past weekend that an employee who worked at both Jubilee Hall and Concorde Hall in Quispamsis tested positive for COVID-19.

Shannex employees at two Nova Scotia facilities — Arborstone Enhanced Care in Halifax and Harris Hall in Dartmouth — have also tested positive for the virus. 

Changing guidance

Earlier this week, health officials in New Brunswick and beyond began recommending that people wear non-medical masks in public, while emphasizing that they don't protect the mask-wearer from getting COVID-19 from others.

But it's not yet clear whether other health care providers in New Brunswick will be required to wear face-coverings at work, too.

When asked about this on Wednesday, the province's chief medical officer said she has "some communications in the works for health care facilities and nursing homes."

"The information that we have now is around asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic transmission and it's about protecting others from becoming infected with you," Dr. Jennifer Russell told reporters.

"There will be more information coming out around that. But as of right now, that's the basis of the recommendations."

On Tuesday, Canada's chief public health officer said she would wear a non-medical mask in cases where it wasn't possible to practice physical distancing, citing grocery shopping as an example. 

"It is an added layer of prevention and protecting the spreading to others," Tam said.

A non-medical mask could include a homemade mask made of material such as cotton.

A customer at a Moncton Atlantic Superstore wears a homemade face mask while grocery shopping on April 8. She says wearing the mask makes her feel safer. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

If people use them, they should be "well-fitted (non-gaping)" and people should avoid moving the mask or adjusting it often, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

They shouldn't be worn by young children under age two, people who have trouble breathing or anyone who may be unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Employees can bring their own non-medical masks

In its memo, Shannex says it has already "sourced a large number of non-medical masks that can withstand industrial laundering."

Non-medical masks provided by Shannex will be cleaned on site, but employees can also bring "their own appropriate non-medical masks from home," which they will have to wash at home themselves, the memo says.

Employees at Shannex facilities, such as this one in Fredericton, can bring their own non-medical masks from home, according to a memo sent to employees. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Snodgrass said employees will be educated on how to safely use non-medical masks.

She said Shannex has been working with "more than 30 local community members, family members, tailor shops and local clothing designers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario to produce more than 30,000 reusable masks" for employees.

"All Shannex communities will have a full supply of these reusable masks by April 17, and until then will be wearing disposable masks," Snodgrass wrote.

Despite precautions, 'an outbreak may still happen'

The company also sent a separate memo to residents and their family members Tuesday, painting a grim picture of what could happen if a resident gets sick with COVID-19.

It says the company has "been working tirelessly to do the work needed to avoid or mitigate an outbreak."

"Despite all of our precautions, an outbreak may still happen."

It says Shannex is preparing to care for residents who get sick in what it calls "regional designated care areas" that will follow guidance from local health authorities.

"Many residents in the long-term care population are there because of their high level of frailty and so will not likely meet the criteria for transfers to hospital-based COVID-19 units or intensive care because they would not likely survive," the memo says.

"We want you to know that our main priority is to ensure that your loved one is comfortable and cared for throughout their illness if they were to become sick."

It says some symptoms of COVID-19 could be managed, such as coughing, fever and shortness of breath. But "some residents might develop a rapid and severe pneumonia that can only be managed palliatively."

The memo also says patients should stay at Shannex, noting that doctors elsewhere have found few benefits in transferring "older, frail people with COVID-19" to hospitals.

"In particular, attempts at CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) are very unlikely to be successful for older, frail patients with COVID-19, and they are unlikely to survive even with intensive care," the memo says.

"We are also considering the probability of harms for patients, as hospital interventions are very likely to be physically and emotionally traumatic."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.

With files from Elizabeth Fraser

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