Providing proper PPE is a matter of life and death

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

As the world grapples with the continuing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frontline health care workers – doctors, nurses, orderlies and others, are facing the brunt of the struggle. Yet they continue to battle on tirelessly, facing long hours, intense fatigue and enormous risks. All so the rest of us can better weather this storm.

But they are under considerable stress. Aside from working over capacity, experiencing grueling fatigue, the pandemic is also impacting their mental health. This is particularly so because they are lacking the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), they so desperately need.

Dr. Sandy Buchman, president of the Canadian Medical Association, says physicians are experiencing “a lot of anxiety.”

“They’re scared. They are frightened in anticipation of what’s to come,” he told Global News. “They are scared for their patients; they are scared for themselves and their own health. They are afraid about their families, their loved ones.”

Dr. Buchman noted that physicians are “especially frightened” because they’re “uncertain about the personal protective equipment they have.”

Vicki McKenna, president with the Ontario Nurses Association, says many nurses on the frontline are just trying to take things “minute by minute.”

“There are so many things that seem to be unknown, and so they’re doing their very best with what they have, the information they have and the high anxiety level of their patients and the patients’ families,” McKenna said.

She added that she is “worried and fearful” that nurses are “carrying a lot subconsciously.”

There is an especially acute need for N95 respirators and surgical masks (face masks) that are used to protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face. N95 respirators, however, are somewhat contentious. Federal and provincial guidelines suggest doctors only need to use them in certain situations, such as when a patient is on high-flow oxygen. Otherwise, the guidelines say surgical masks are enough to protect against the transmission of COVID-19.

But nurses’ unions across the country have called for more liberal use of the N95 masks as an added precaution, and some doctors feel the same.

“We’re getting very close to our patients, we can’t assess our patients from six feet away,” says Dr. Sohail Gandhi, president of the Ontario Medical Association.

“If I’m going to go into an environment where there are people who are presumed to have (COVID-19), I’d want to wear an N95 in those circumstances.”

Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, says “If we were to take away the concern over the PPE, you will decrease by — I would suggest — 40 per cent, if not more, the stress on nurses and on others.”

One reason for the shortage in Canada is that increasing the strategic stock of PPE was “not a top priority,” according to Carla Qualtrough, who served as Canada’s Minister of Public Services and Procurement (PSPC) from 2017 to 2019. In an interview with Global’s Mercedes Stephenson, she said:

“We were very focused, as you know, on defence procurement, on getting the coast guard the ships they need, on getting the navy… We had a lot on our plate as PSPC and that was not a top priority, no.”

The problem is especially acute in Quebec, by far the province hardest hit by the pandemic, and Ontario. But even in Alberta, which has such an abundant supply that on April 11 Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced the province would provide shipments of personal protective equipment to British Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec, as well as 50 ventilators for Ontario, frontline workers aren’t getting the PPEs they need. Here the problem is not with procurement, but with distribution. Alberta’s stockpile has been sitting in an Edmonton warehouse and some care centres have been waiting for as long as six weeks to get the supplies they require. Alberta Health Services (AHS) is now in a mad rush to distribute them, but this problem is indicative of the frustration health care providers have to deal with.

But if there is a problem with PPE in Canada, it is far worse in other countries, particularly the United States which has the largest number of Covid-19 cases in the world. There, the problem was compounded when President Donald Trump sent almost 18 tons of PPE to China in February and has created a situation where state governors compete with each other for supplies, driving up the price.

It is also especially acute in Ukraine, which has a lower infection rate than most countries, but a colossal rate of infection among heath care workers. As of April 16, Ukraine had 4,161 laboratory confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 788 among medical personnel — nearly a fifth of the total, as compared with the United States where health care workers account for two per cent of confirmed Covid cases. In Ukraine health care workers have had to get masks and gloves at their own cost. So severe is the shortage in that country that Inna Ivanenko, managing director of Patients of Ukraine, a non-governmental health organization, says “there is a possibility that soon there simply won’t be people left to treat (patients).”

One Canadian non-profit organization that is helping to alleviate this shortage is Kohorta (formerly CUIA Fund). Thanks to the generous donations of the Ukrainian Canadians, in partnership with Patients of Ukraine, Kohorta to date. was able to supply the Ternopil and Chernivtsi oblasts of Ukraine with the following items: 234 bio-suites, 160 elbow-length gloves, 1000 hospital shoe covers, 200 FFP2 respirators, 11 FFP3 respirators, 2000 medical hats, 70 face visors, and 30 litres of antiseptic. To learn more, visit their website at: www.kohorta.ca. New Pathway – Ukrainian News would like to know about any other NGOs that are also involved in this kind of assistance and will be providing this information to our readers in subsequent issues. If you have any information you wish to share, please contact us at (416) 960-3424, (780) 488-3693, info@newpathway.ca, or ukrnews@shaw.ca.

Private donations notwithstanding, providing health care workers with proper PPE must also be a priority for all governments around the world. It’s a matter of life and death.

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