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Why COVID-19 has personal support workers feeling uneasy during home-care visits

Personal support workers who provide care in clients' homes worry they’ll catch or spread COVID-19 if they aren't given more protective gear to wear.

PSWs face shortage of personal protective equipment while providing care in clients' homes

Lindsay Couture is executive director for the Ajax/Pickering chapter of the Ontario Personal Support Worker Association. She also runs her own business called Oakwood Home Healthcare. (Lindsay Couture)

Personal support workers who care for clients inside their homes are among the essential service providers who don't feel safe on the job due to a lack of personal protective equipment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's very, very scary," said Lindsay Couture, the executive director for Ajax/Pickering with the Ontario Personal Support Worker Association. 

"We just keep going forward, follow precautions and just hope we don't get [COVID-19]."

Couture runs her own PSW business, Oakwood Home Healthcare, and says it's been "impossible" for private companies like hers to find personal protective equipment. Her concerns reflect those of many health-care workers across the country as protective gear and other medical supplies run short in hospitals that are seeing rising numbers of patients with the novel coronavirus.

Couture managed to get some mask donations earlier, but has had a hard time finding more.

That's left her and other PSWs in Durham with no choice but to enter homes of clients, many who are elderly or immuno-compromised, unprotected to help them with physical tasks like bathing, dressing, and toileting.

"This is our job. These people still require the care," she said. 

She says she screens each client before a visit and washes her hands "all of the time."

Yet many Oakwood clients have cancelled appointments out of fear of catching COVID-19. That's meant Couture has had to lay off PSWs. 

"It's been really tough. I really miss the clients and I know the clients are missing me. I've had a few reach out to me," she said.

While several personal protective equipment drives for hospitals have started in Toronto, home care workers feel forgotten about their needs for supplies.

In a CBC Marketplace episode, Couture was given boxes of masks, gloves, gowns, and disinfectants by Chris Pudleiner and Ingrid Zschogner, a married couple who own Timeless Tattoo Company in Whitby, Ont. Their business has temporarily closed.

An emotional Couture expressed thanks to the couple and said the supply was enough to last her two months. 

Lindsay Couture needs protective equipment like gloves and masks for her job as a home care worker, but they’re in short supply. How did Canada end up with such a shortage for our frontline workers? 6:10

'I'm worried about cross-contamination' 

Dorothy McCartie is also feeling "nervous" about the spread of COVID-19 as she enters different clients' homes daily in Scarborough.

The non-profit agency she works for has supplied PSWs with hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves, but it's "minimal," she says.

"We've been told we have to reuse them. I'm worried about cross-contamination," said McCartie.

She's also noticed clients who are uncomfortable seeing her wear a mask inside their home.

"A lot of elderly can't get outside so when we come into the home with our mask on, it raises a sense of fear," McCartie said. "If they can't get a mask, where's their protection?"

She says she keeps her visits as short as possible and goes home to shower and change in between clients. 

Her usual 25-hour work week has gone down to 15 hours some weeks, which means a smaller paycheque

'Aggressively' trying to increase supply, province says

In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Health said the government "aggressively pursues all available efforts to increase this supply to ensure the appropriate health and safety measures are in place to mitigate" the transmission of infections.

Protecting the health and safety of front-line health care workers and patients is a "critical priority for the government," the ministry said. 

"It's a crisis like this that is really shining a light on the essential services that we provide to help keep people safe and independent as possible in the home and out of the hospital," said Frances Morton-Chang, director of seniors programs and assisted living at WoodGreen Community Services. 

The organization employs 150 PSWs in the East Toronto region.

She recognizes her staff and clients are feeling tense.

Frances Morton-Chang's organization, WoodGreen Community Services, employs 150 PSWs. 'We are doing our best to ensure consistency with PSWs and clients and having the same few PSWs enter each home,' she says. (Frances Morton-Chang)

"There are a lot of unknowns right now."

She's reassuring clients that her staff are following guidelines and directives from public health, the health ministry, and infectious disease doctors. 

She said if a client is presenting COVID-19-like symptoms, PSWs are equipped with gowns, goggles and gloves.

Morton-Chang says her staff are trained on screening checks for signs of a cough or fever, donning and doffing of protective gear, and proper hand washing techniques.

Home care clients also taking precautions

As someone who has PSWs enter her condo for several hours a day, six days a week, Mona Kornberg is also taking precautions.

Her husband Jacques Kornberg was diagnosed with terminal cancer six months ago. He now requires help for any physical movement. 

She ensures anyone who enters her home washes their hands properly and regularly and uses the disinfectant wipes often.

Mona says it's "been a struggle" having a rotation of PSWs, whose services are funded by the Ontario government, coming into her home. She screens them each time about their social distancing and whereabouts, and those of their other clients. 

Jacques and Mona Kornberg, shown here at their granddaughter's bat mitzvah, rely on the help of PSW home visits six days a week. He is in palliative care and requires assistance with any physical movement. (Mona Kornberg)

She says she's fought hard to narrow down the roster of PSWs who enter her home each week, but is planning to move onto a private agency in hope of finding more consistent care. 

"People who are vulnerable like my husband need the consistency to feel safe."

About the Author

Sannah Choi is a multi-platform journalist with CBC Toronto. She started as a TV reporter in her hometown at CBC Ottawa and has since worked on shows like Power and Politics, Ottawa Morning, Here and Now, and Metro Morning. She enjoys exploring her neighbourhood in Toronto's west end with her husband and son.

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