Health minister clarifies protocol after nurses’ union warns of medical supply shortages, improper protective gear

By Sabrina Nanji March 31, 2020

Health Minister Christine Elliott said Sunday that Ontario hospitals must “carefully manage” their arsenal of personal protective gear (PPE) “until new supplies arrive.”  

In the days and weeks prior, Elliott and other provincial officials insisted Ontario had an adequate supply of PPE and that no health-care facilities were being asked to ration their supplies — despite reports to the contrary.

In Sunday’s joint statement with Anthony Dale, president and CEO of the Ontario Hospital Association, Elliott conceded the province is facing “increasing demand and use” of PPE within its hospitals, as well as a “strained global supply.”  

Premier Doug Ford has been making direct calls to PPE manufacturers in order to shore up procurement of N95 face masks, protective Tyvek suits and other supplies, but orders are coming in piecemeal and some U.S. manufacturers are no longer shipping to Canada.  

Meanwhile, the Ontario Nurses’ Association is warning members about being offered improper protective gear, such as cotton fabric face masks. 

In a memo to nurses last Friday, ONA president Vicki McKenna said the union has heard stories about employers and managers threatening nurses with professional discipline if they request proper PPE or refuse to work without it.

McKenna said that goes against their collective agreement and strongly advised nurses and other health-care professionals to only use medically approved protective gear.  

“Please know that the effectiveness of these cotton face masks is unproven, and may put you further at risk. Our best advice is to respectfully decline the offer of these cotton face masks,” reads the memo, which was obtained by Queen’s Park Today.

On Monday, the province clarified proper protocol for protective gear. 

The health and labour ministries, chief medical health officer and Ontario Nurses’ Association put out a joint directive around the use of PPE amid COVID-19. 

Among other things, the new directive ensures “all health care workers who are within two metres of suspected, presumed or confirmed COVID-19 patients shall have access to appropriate PPE” and the training for its proper use. 

It also says contingency plans will be put in place when PPE utilization rates show the province’s stockpile will run out in 30 days. 

McKenna welcomed the clarified measures in a separate release, saying they will allow a nurse to use their professional judgement to determine if they need a mask or other protective gear when interacting with patients “and the employer will not unreasonably deny access to it.” 

“This enables nurses to use the precautionary principle to prevent exposure to and transmission of COVID-19,” McKenna said.  

The health minister’s office did not directly respond to QPT‘s requests for comment. 

Over the weekend, Premier Ford got a glimpse of the province’s emergency PPE stockpile during a warehouse tour alongside Elliott and Finance Minister Rod Phillips

 Ford couched his government’s earlier insistence about adequate supply slightly differently in the accompanying statement, saying: “We will continue to do everything we can to ensure Ontario has an adequate supply of medical equipment in order to protect the workers who are on the frontline of this pandemic every single day.”