Nfld. & Labrador

Nurses angry over possible exposure to COVID-19 after warning Eastern Health of risk

Nurses say they and other patients at the Health Sciences Centre were put at undue risk by Eastern Health when a sick patient was moved to a shared room in a busy unit at the hospital.

Up to 100 Health Sciences Centre workers in isolation after possible exposure to virus

Debbie Forward, president of the Registered Nurses' Union Newfoundland and Labrador, says Eastern Health should have listened to nurses' concerns. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Nurses say they and patients at the Health Sciences Centre is St. John's were put at undue risk by Eastern Health when a very sick patient was moved to a shared room in a busy unit at the hospital.

They're among the up to 100 hospital workers who are now in isolation for 14 days after the health authority determined they may have been in contact with a patient infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

The patient tested positive for the virus and was admitted to a COVID-19 unit for care. After their condition improved and they tested negative, twice, they were then moved to another general medicine unit in the hospital with other patients. There the patient's condition deteriorated and they subsequently tested positive for the virus again.

[Nurses] feel disrespected by their employer.- Debbie Forward

"Nurses are upset and angry over this incident," said Debbie Forward, president of Registered Nurses' Union Newfoundland and Labrador.

"In particular, union members who were working in the unit where this patient was transferred. They felt that it was inappropriate for this patient to be on their unit, in with other patients."

Forward said the nurses believed the patient should continue to be isolated and made their concerns clear to superiors but were ignored.

"They voiced those concerns to managers over and over. Yet their concerns were not heeded and then lo and behold on Saturday night all of their worst fears came true and now those staff are isolating either at home or in hotels. They feel disrespected by their employer," she said.

Forward said the decision to move the patient from a COVID ward to a general ward also put patients at risk.

"[Nurses] voiced their concerns and they felt that the employer wasn't erring on the side of caution. If their professional judgment was listened to this could have been avoided."

They have dropped the ball.- Debbie Forward

Eastern Health told local union representatives about the incident on the weekend and met with Forward on Tuesday afternoon to discuss what happened. Forward says the health authority failed to notify union leaders about this incident quickly enough.

"They've admitted and said to us that they have dropped the ball on that communication and we should have been brought into the loop earlier," she said.

Forward says having up to 100 health sciences staff members isolated and unable to work for two weeks could cause staffing problems for the health authority.

About 100 workers at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's are now in self-isolation. (CBC)

"This is a significant concern and the employer is now having to put in contingency plans for staffing. I know that over the weekend there were a couple of staff who worked 24 hours because of the number of people who had to be sent home," she said.

Forward had not been told how many of the people isolated were members of the union she represents.

NAPE leaders also upset with Eastern Health

The leaders of another union, the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees say there was a communication breakdown with them as well.

"I was quite upset when I learned about this. Gravely concerned because we represent a number of health-care workers as do other public sector unions," said union president Jerry Earle.

Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, says he was 'gravely concerned' when he heard about the possible exposure. (Gary Locke/CBC)

"Normally the provincial leadership of unions would be advised usually within hours. Local representatives, who are full-time workers who are volunteers with the union, they were told on Sunday but we knew nothing about it whatsoever."

Eastern Health says it's taking incident seriously

The health authority says it is doing everything it can to limit the spread of the virus and ensure Health Sciences staff remain healthy.

"We've isolated our staff and swabbed all our staff. There are about 100 staff members who are in isolation now," said Dr. Larry Alteen, Eastern Health's vice-president of medical services.

"There are maybe a half-dozen tests that are remaining to come back but so far those swabs have all proven negative [for the virus]," he said. "We are going to follow those staff and repeat the testing in another three to five days."

Eastern Health says it will be able to adequately staff units of the hospital that have been affected.

"It is a lot of people but because we diminished the provision of surgical services to plan for COVID-19 and deal with COVID patients, we have the capacity for staffing to manage this. So right now we are able to staff the units that we need," said Alteen.

Premier thanks health-care workers

At Tuesday's provincial briefing Newfoundland and Labrador's premier said it's good news the workers have all tested negative so far.

Premier Dwight Ball on Tuesday offered a thank-you to the front-line workers who have been affected. (CBC)

"Our message to these essential workers, who are self-isolating at this time, is that we want to thank them for what they have done and what they continue to do. Those essential workers … we cannot say thank you enough," said Dwight Ball.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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