UWindsor study reveals toll of COVID-19 on Ontario health-care workers

A University of Windsor study found that health care workers surveyed were experiencing high levels of fear, anxiety and emotional distress.

'They would go home at night and cry all the way home, couldn't sleep'

A health-care worker attends to a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit (ICU) at the General University Hospital in Prague, Czech Republic, Tuesday, April 7, 2020. A new study has shed light on the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has had on healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic. (Petr David Josek/Associated Press)

A new study has shed light on the extreme toll COVID-19 has had on Ontario's health-care workers.

Last spring, researchers interviewed 10 workers throughout the province about their experiences on the frontline of the pandemic.

They spoke of high levels of fear, anxiety and emotional distress, said Jim Brophy, an adjunct professor with the University of Windsor sociology department, who worked on the study. They also reported very high workloads, and felt they weren't supported in their roles.

"And then, of course, the tremendous fear that they would become infected or that they would infect other patients, that they would infect their families," said Brophy, one of four researchers behind the study.

"They would go home at night and cry all the way home, couldn't sleep."

The study participants included nurses, cleaners, clerical workers and personal support workers (PSWs) — some at hospitals, others at long-term care facilities. They were quoted at length about the difficulties they faced on the job and how they grappled with the strain of the surging pandemic.

Jim Brophy, an adjunct professor of sociology with the University of Windsor, was one of four researchers who worked on the study. (Jonathan Pinto/CBC)

"My husband and I are in separate bedrooms. We even have separate bathrooms because I don't want to take the chance of bringing something home to him ... I haven't seen my grandchildren," one PSW was quoted as saying.

Frustrations were also expressed about inadequate protection from infection, as well as the pandemic response from government.

The research was conducted in partnership with the health-care workers' union, the Council of Hospital Unions-Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU-CUPE), which helped the researchers locate participants.

It follows a March survey of 3,000 Ontario health-care workers conducted by OCHU-CUPE that found that 87 per cent didn't have enough personal protective equipment to stay safe and 91 per cent felt "abandoned" by the provincial government.

The researchers argue the pandemic has illuminated longstanding shortcomings in Ontario's health-care system, including under-funding and under-staffing.

According to the most recent provincial statistics, out of more than 105,000 people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Ontario as of Monday, nearly 8,900 were health care workers.

Statistics also show eight workers from long-term care homes have lost their lives to the illness.

Hope for better supports

Brophy is hopeful the study will spark stronger efforts to protect and support those on the frontlines.

"I'm hoping that all of this will contribute to a greater awareness that the public is not safe if our health care workers are not safe," he said.

The Ontario government has established mental health resources specifically for health-care workers, including peer support groups and services at five hospitals.

The province has earmarked an additional $3.3 billion to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and improve health care in 2020-2021.

With files from Windsor Morning


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