Nova Scotia

Around 30 Cape Breton hospital workers have self-isolated due to patient with COVID-19

Between 20-30 nurses, three doctors and three respiratory therapists from the Cape Breton Regional Hospital are in quarantine while awaiting COVID-19 tests after a patient who initially tested negative developed symptoms.

Patient initially tested negative, forcing hospital to isolate nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists

Between 20-30 nurses, three doctors and three respiratory therapists at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney are off work and in quarantine while awaiting COVID-19 tests. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Around 30 health-care workers from the Cape Breton Regional Hospital in Sydney are in a 14-day period of self-isolation after inadvertently coming into contact with COVID-19.

This follows the first recorded death in Nova Scotia from the virus, which occurred at the regional hospital on Monday.

"A significant number of staff were exposed through this one event," said Dr. Margaret Fraser, chair of the Cape Breton Medical Staff Association.

Between 20-30 nurses, three doctors and three respiratory therapists are off work and in quarantine while awaiting COVID-19 tests, she said.

The workers came into contact with a patient who had been previously tested for coronavirus.

Dr. Margaret Fraser says health-care workers have accepted that being on the front lines means probable infection from COVID-19, which will inevitably lead to staff shortages in hospitals. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

"Unfortunately, in this case the patient did test negative, so droplet precautions were not being taken, so staff were unfortunately exposed to COVID-19," said Fraser.

No tests are 100 per cent accurate, she said, and there will be false negatives, which is why staff have to self-isolate for 14 days even if their own tests are negative.

Fraser said she didn't know the patient's situation and doesn't know whether they had symptoms.

She said health-care workers have accepted that being on the front lines mean probable unprotected contact and probable infection, regardless of precautions.

That will put hospitals under further pressure, Fraser said.

"Inevitably, there will be staffing shortages as this goes on," she said.

"It's been estimated that between 30 and 70 per cent of the population will eventually have some form of infection with COVID-19, so it would be foolishness for us to think that we are immune simply by virtue of the fact that we are health-care workers."

342 cases of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia

As of today, there are 342 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Nova Scotia.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, which represents registered nurses in hospitals, said her members are prepared to work on the front lines during the pandemic.

However, they are very anxious about their own safety and the safety of their families, she said.

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, says her members are very concerned about access to protective equipment and possible inadvertent exposure to the virus. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

"Our concern is, obviously, we don't know when we're in contact with a patient -- anytime -- whether or not they have COVID-19," said Hazelton.

Nurses are very concerned about access to protective equipment, she said, and while the proper process was followed at the regional hospital, there is some fear that workers will be exposed to the virus inadvertently in other ways.

The Nova Scotia Health Authority would not comment on the staff situation at the Cape Breton hospital, saying it is unable to share personal health information about patients or details surrounding the care of individuals.

However, since Monday, all front-line staff have been directed to wear masks, which "represents only the most recent change to an evolving strategy," said Brendan Elliott, a senior communications adviser with the health authority.

This map shows the breakdown of known COVID-19 cases by health zone as of Wednesday. The Nova Scotia Health Authority says two staff members in the eastern zone, seven in the central zone and one in the northern zone have tested positive for COVID-19. (Province of Nova Scotia)

He said staff are in self-isolation while awaiting tests and public advisories are issued when the authority needs help reaching potential contacts who may have been exposed to the virus.

As of Monday, two staff members in the eastern zone, seven in the central zone and one in the northern zone have tested positive for COVID-19, Elliott said.

Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said officials are concerned about having a large number of health-care workers in self-isolation.

"We are looking at ways that we could get people potentially back to work sooner with some very careful measures around monitoring temperatures, daily screening, etc.," he told reporters during a daily briefing on Wednesday.

Nova Scotia chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang says the Nova Scotia Health Authority has issued a new directive that any patient with a suggestion of respiratory illness is treated using COVID-19 precautions. (CBC)

"Having to pull numbers of people out of the workforce ... creates significant strain on our health-care system and challenges the ability to deliver essential care, but we also have to make sure that we are not putting patients or co-workers at any increased risk of transmitting this virus."

Strang also said the tests used to detect COVID-19 are accurate, but they don't always pick up the virus.

In some individuals, it could be deep in the lungs and might not be present or might not be sufficient in the upper airway to register when a swab is done, he said.

As a result, the health authority has issued a new directive so that any patient with a suggestion of respiratory illness is treated using COVID-19 precautions, even if the initial test is negative, said Strang.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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