Nurses in Hamilton and across Ontario are raising alarm after the province severely restricted when N95 respirator masks are used during the COVID-19 crisis.
The masks, which fit to the face and provide extremely efficient filtration of airborne particles, are now used only for invasive procedures, which is a recent change in federal and provincial advice. The personal protective equipment was more widely used when novel coronavirus first arrived in Canada.
"We're not asking for the moon here," said Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses' Association. "Let's make sure health-care workers are protected. Let's not repeat the mistakes of the past."
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Health-care workers died during the SARS virus outbreak in 2003 and McKenna says it's important to err on the side of caution during COVID-19 and give N95 masks to those caring for patients or screening for coronavirus.
"We believe this is the right thing to do," she said. "We're not asking that every health-care worker in this province walk around with fit-tested N95s on. That is unrealistic."
But Dr. Dominik Mertz, medical director of infection control at HHS, said the health-care system was cautious when COVID-19 came to Canada and gave the masks to those who would potentially be exposed.
"Now we know much more about the virus," he said. "N95 masks will be a scarce resource and we need to use the masks when we need them."
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He said it's now clear COVID-19 is spread by droplets, so a regular mask is sufficient most of the time, with the N95s offering a higher level of protection for invasive procedures.
McKenna disputes the claim that enough is known about the virus now to make the change.
"The science is not clear on this," she said. "We could pile up research on either side of this discussion. Unless the science is clear you err on the side of caution."
The federal government said Friday that it was able to secure more than 11 million N95 respirator masks.
"This is changing hour by hour, but our goal is to make sure the resources are there and the right patient care has access to the right set of equipment," said Dr. Zain Chagla, co-medical director of infection control at St. Joseph's Healthcare.
Joanna Frketich Joanna Frketich is a reporter with The Hamilton Spectator, covering health and education among other stories. She lives in Hamilton and has been a journalist for more than 20 years, earning numerous Ontario Newspaper Awards including journalist of the year. She was also a National Newspaper Award finalist. Her Hamilton investigations have revealed past dysfunction among cardiac surgeons, dangerously low vaccination rates, students increasingly failing math standardized testing and hospital overc