Pat Tamlin survived SARS and now the Toronto intensive care nurse is on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Is it different this time? Absolutely,” she said.
Intensive care units are starting to fill up, she said, and she suspects they’ll be full soon.
“This compared to SARS, the volume — it boggles me.”
She’s also worried about what’s coming. “The hospitals won’t be able to handle it ultimately.”
Tamlin’s concerns come as nurses across the country worry that there will not be adequate supplies of protective gear and equipment for them as more COVID-19 patients require treatment in hospital, CBC News has found.
Back in 2003, Tamlin had young children who were living at home. After she contracted SARS while working at Scarborough Grace Hospital, so did her daughter.
Her children have grown up, but now she takes care of her husband, who is going through chemotherapy.
Because his immune system is compromised, she’s worried he’ll come down with COVID-19 if she’s exposed to a patient without wearing the right equipment.
Of the dozens of nurses CBC News spoke with across the country, Tamlin was the only one who was willing to be identified.
‘Not a luxury’
The head of the Canadian Federation of Nurses, Linda Silas, understands why nurses are scared.
“We can demand safe working conditions. That is not a luxury, it’s called safety.”
Silas took questions from nurses across the country this week during a Facebook Live, and she was swamped with questions from nurses saying they see protective gear like masks being rationed and even locked up.
“We have a few success stories. British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario just signed agreements with their governments”.
The agreements will allow nurses to request more protective equipment when working closely with COVID-19 patients, but only if there are enough supplies.
CBC News obtained a hospital email from an Ontario nurse who didn’t want to be identified.
The email reveals the hospital is experiencing a shortage of masks, with only enough for roughly one week.
The nurse said: “We’re so low on N95 masks that we’re expected to enter COVID-19 rooms with surgical masks, which are not effective against the virus. Not only are we risking our own health, but the health of our children and spouses.”
Another nurse from Alberta said they felt disrespected after refusing to do COVID tests without an N95 mask.
“This didn’t go over well. I was made to feel belittled, and my concerns dismissed.”
In dozens of interviews with nurses over the phone, most said that even though they feel unprotected, they are willing to go to work to try to save lives, to stay in a hotel to avoid exposing their families and even to make their own gear if it comes to that.
‘Telling us to keep quiet’
What the nurses weren’t prepared to do was to go public, criticizing their employers.
An Ontario nurse said: “Hospitals are telling us to keep quiet about this information and even threatening to fire staff should we speak out on social media or to the public.”
The Ontario Hospital Association said Wednesday on Twitter that it is “extremely concerned that many Ontario hospitals are running low on PPE [personal protective equipment], particularly masks. Today, we’re calling on the government to clearly and specifically inform hospitals on when new supplies will be delivered.”
The national organization that speaks for Canadian hospitals is also urging provincial and federal governments to do more.
HealthCareCAN CEO Paul-Émile Cloutier told CBC News nurses are working hard in the fight against COVID-19, but “unfortunately, we have seen shortages in critically needed personal protective equipment and other required materials. It is unconscionable that a country as prosperous as Canada should have a health system that is poorly equipped, particularly since we had warnings that this pandemic was coming.”
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Wednesday the federal government “likely did not have enough” personal protective gear in the national stockpile heading into the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think federal governments for decades have been underfunding things like public health preparedness.”
Avoiding potential exposure
Other nurses said they are avoiding potential exposure to the virus by not taking shifts in ICU or assessment centres, but as hospitals admit more COVID-19 patients, nurses might be mandated to work.
Tamlin said she won’t quit her job because of the pandemic.
“People will say we signed up for this, and I want to be extremely clear: We signed up to look after patients, like a police officer signs up with a gun and a vest … but with the expectation that we are allowed to protect ourselves and everybody else with the right equipment.”