Op-ed from OCHU RPNs Pam Parks, Judy Bain and Maggie Jewell

There are painted rocks, flower bouquets and handmade signs outside our hospitals and long-term-care homes. These are welcome offerings. The thanks to health-care workers inside touch us deeply. It all helps. For the legion of us on the ground — working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in hospitals, long-term-care homes, paramedic services, home and other community care settings — the reality is, that things are grim.

It has never been grimmer. In nearly 100 years of nursing, we’ve dealt with many medical emergencies. We nursed through SARS. Nursed the old and the very young, some of whom died in our arms. But nothing compares to what we’re dealing with since COVID-19.

Ontario health-care workers are dying and we have a rate of infection that nears the most severe in the world. We need our provincial government to significantly change its approach to this virus and the support given to us fighting to keep others alive during this crisis.

Reflection and improvement are an essential part of our nursing practice. All of us must reflect on whether we can approach COVID-19 differently and affect the outcomes for the people we care for and that of those we work alongside.

When Ontario downgraded safety protocols in the face of a supply shortage to treat this virus as though it can’t be transmitted by air outside of aerosolizing procedures, we began to worry about our safety and the safety of patients and residents. With the safety protocols downgraded came the green light for a much lower level of face protection.

Now the vulnerability to infection is palpable the moment we step into our workplaces because we don’t have access to the masks and other protections we should. We are afraid of dying. We worry about taking COVID-19 home and infecting our family. Thousands of us sleep in basements, sheds and trailers so we won’t pass the virus to our kids and partners.

COVID-19 is lurking. It could come the next time we care for a patient or resident, screen or admit anyone, disinfect an emergency room, empty a garbage bag, fix a burst pipe. It could come from a co-worker, who because we are not all tested is unaware they are COVID-19 positive.

Access to the higher-level N95 masks and other personal perfective equipment (PPE) would keep infection rates lower. Perhaps those who advise the premier are telling him all is in hand — that health-care staff are getting PPE. This is not true. Many nurses, personal support workers, cleaners, dietary staff, admitting clerks and maintenance people are being denied N95s even when dealing with a COVID-19 positive or assumed COVID-19 patient or resident.

Many more are being given just one surgical mask and gown and told to make these sodden, soiled and supplies last the day. Colleagues across the province report there is not enough PPE supply to don and doff masks, gowns and gloves as we go from one patient and resident’s room to another. This is at odds with good infection control practice and leaves health-care settings rife for virus transmission.

More than 3,700 Ontario health-care staff are infected with COVID-19. That’s 17 per cent of all cases in the province. Countries that isolated COVID-19 positive people in hospitals, tested widely and protected health-care workers using airborne protections fare much better than Ontario.

With 81 per cent of COVID-19 deaths being in long-term care, it suggests to us that Ontario’s approach is failing. New York state ordered care homes to transfer residents with COVID-19 who they can’t look after to hospital.

Finally, we are thankful for the pandemic pay subsidy. We appreciate the gesture, and the recognition we get from the premier. But, our nursing is supported by an army of ward clerks, clerical staff, dietary aides, maintenance, sterilization, technologists and spiritual and lab and pharmacy staff, among others. We are all on the front lines battling COVID-19. All our work is physically and emotionally exhausting, dangerous and deeply undervalued.

Yet half of us don’t get the pandemic pay. What it suggests to our co-workers is that their work is not front line or valued. All of us are a team. Do not divide us. Treat us all equal — protect and pay us all.