Nova Scotia

N.S. nurses' union wants debate about PPE use settled once and for all

When the province eventually conducts its review on the response to COVID-19, the president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union can think of one thing in particular that needs to be discussed.

Union and others look to possible system changes as COVID curve flattens

The head of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union said the issue of PPE availability, supply and use needs to be settled. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

When the province eventually conducts a review of the response to COVID-19, the president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union can think of one thing in particular that needs to be discussed.

Janet Hazelton said nothing is more important for a union than protecting the health and safety of its workers.

Hazelton said for that reason there should never be a debate again about what type of personal protective equipment, or PPE, workers should be using or when they should get it.

"You wouldn't expect a firefighter to go into a burning home without proper equipment, but yet you expect that our health-care workers would care for people without the proper equipment," she said.

In the early days of COVID-19's arrival in Nova Scotia, there was intense debate among unions, the government and public health about who should have what protective equipment and to what standard.

Hazelton said it's now clear to everyone why PPE is so important, but she believes the debate stemmed from worries about supply levels.

"Everybody is concerned about the supply, and if we use it up too early, we're not going to have it when we need it, which is just sad in my view."

Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, says her members want to know they'll have the supplies they need when they need them. (Stephanie Clattenburg/CBC)

Premier Stephen McNeil seemed to hint that supply issues influenced decisions. He acknowledged the stress it created for workers during a briefing last month as he announced expanded use guidelines following the procurement of more PPE.

"I know for the front-line workers there has been a lot of anxiety around masks, and we contributed to that anxiety," said McNeil.

"I'm sorry."

Hazelton said getting appropriate PPE for people when they need it is no longer an issue at this point, but she said the pandemic review won't be the last word for her on PPE.

"I can guarantee you that this will be a bargaining-unit issue, a collective-agreement issue next round and we will be looking for language that guarantees that our nurses and all the other health-care workers get what they need to practise safely."

NSHA president Dr. Brendan Carr says it will take months to ramp the health-care system back up following changes in anticipation of COVID-19. (Communications Nova Scotia)

PPE isn't the only issue at the forefront as people consider how the province's health system will look as non-urgent cases begin to resume.

Nova Scotia Health Authority CEO Dr. Brendan Carr has said that process will take months, but one thing he's hoping comes out of the last few months is continued use of virtual care and telemedicine where and when appropriate.

"Just because of [the] necessity of trying to streamline how many interactions people would have with the system, how many people they needed to touch, there's been a lot of really good work from a patient's point of view that I think is very positive," he said.

Tory Leader Tim Houston supports that idea.

Although there will always be patients and situations that require face-to-face meetings with doctors and other practitioners, Houston said expanded use of technology is long overdue.

"You don't have to go to the bank to bank, you don't have to go to the store to shop," he said.

"We need to do more of that in this province because of our demographics, because of our geography."

As of Friday, May 8, 40 resident deaths at the Northwood long-term care have been connected to COVID-19. (Robert Short/CBC)

NDP Leader Gary Burrill wants to see a permanent moratorium on sick notes. Burrill said the temporary hold put in place during COVID-19 proves what doctors have been saying for years: sick notes are largely unnecessary and burdensome paperwork that do more harm than good.

He's also mindful of the available staffing levels and low pay some workers earn in long-term care. As others have stated during the pandemic, Burrill said COVID-19 is exposing huge flaws in that system and they need to be addressed.

"This is exceptionally important work and the recognition and the pay that it receives needs to reflect that."

Hazelton said availability of PPE must also be secured in the future for all long-term care homes, so in the event of an outbreak they aren't trying to source the supplies they need.

Earlier this week, McNeil said the province would be reviewing long-term care delivery, looking at, among other things, whether changes need to be made at homes that are still using double-occupancy rooms.

That setup has been pointed to as one of the challenges at the Northwood long-term care home in Halifax where, as of Friday, 40 of the province's 46 COVID-19-related deaths have happened.