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Home support care workers concerned over lack of personal protection equipment, sanitization supplies

Last Updated Mar 31, 2020 at 6:48 am PDT

(iStock Photo)

Fraser Health home support care workers are raising concerns over what they call limited access to PPE

That includes sanitization supplies, vital for their own safety, and the safety of vulnerable clients during COVID-19

One Fraser Health care worker says she's sometimes gone days without hand sanitizer

SURREY (NEWS 1130) — Home support care workers in the Fraser Health region are raising concerns over their access to personal protective equipment, sanitization supplies and safety to themselves and their vulnerable clients during the pandemic.

One woman, who has worked for Fraser Health for over a decade, says workers have experienced going days and weeks without proper sanitization supplies, like hand sanitizer.

“So basically after I leave an apartment, for example, I’ve touched the walls, or the elevator buttons, elevator doors, the door handles to get out the railings … Now touch all these things of a multi build, multi-person complex and I’ve nothing in my car,” she tells NEWS 1130.

While the worker chooses to remain anonymous, she adds workers providing care at home are working strenuous hours and are dependent on their vehicles, which tend to be the only spaces they have to take a breather and get some work done before they drive to the next client. But with a lack of supplies, their personal vehicles are also potentially adding to the spread of the virus.

The BCGEU, a union representing a portion of workers, says personal protective equipment, sanitization supplies and safety, have been key issues workers have reported since COVID-19’s outbreak.

“[Workers] really just wanting to ensure that not only are they being kept safe and healthy, in case of inadvertent contact with somebody who may be ill, but also to ensure that they don’t inadvertently spread the virus,” Stephanie Smith from the union says.

On Wednesday, Fraser Health informed workers that they are required to wear a surgical mask in clients’ homes, and that one should be worn throughout the entire shift and not changed between patients unless “visibly soiled, damp, damaged or hard to breathe/see-through.”

While a mask is an improvement, the worker says compared to other health care workers, the comparison is not fair.

She says workers taking blood or doing risk assessments have been provided gowns, mask, booties, “And we’re standing there in our scrubs.”

The European Centre for Disease Control released a report on mask and surgical equipment reusability and sterilization methods Thursday.

It says, “in one study, 40-90% of particles penetrated the mask. In a cluster randomized controlled trial, cases of influenza-like illness and laboratory-confirmed viral illness were significantly higher among healthcare workers using cloth masks compared to the ones using surgical masks.”

To add to the challenges, the worker says many clients have also been taking action to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but doing so is making working conditions more demanding.

“Now people are actually taping down their toilet seats. We can’t use their washrooms,” she says. “So we have zero access to water and soap.”

While Fraser Health and management has provided support to workers through education sessions and updating workers with the latest information, the health care worker says it is not enough.

“We’re supposed to ask these respiratory questions. Most people don’t speak English or don’t understand the questions, or are not capable of doing it,” she says. “And there’s way more people in the homes now because everybody is supposed to be staying home people aren’t working. So there are even more people in the home which puts us even more risks,” she says.

“And then we’ll be asking family members is anybody else in the house sick? And they’ll say no because they want us to still provide care. And we’ll be providing care to the client and people will be coughing and sneezing and hacking a lung while we’re all in the room there would be zero, zero equipment.”

The health care worker adds communication between staff in the field and management has also been challenging as supervisors are working from home to practice social distancing.

Workers in this field support various ages, but many of their clients are from vulnerable communities.

“I’m supposed to be contagious or could be contagious for 14 days without any symptoms. So how many people am I seeing in that 14 days that are very vulnerable?” she asks.

“They really taking care of these people because they need to be taken care of … They’re elderly, they’re vulnerable. They’re immune-compromised. They’re going through treatments are recovering like it’s absurd, actually shocking.”

Since the virus pandemic, Fraser Health says it has not seen an increase in demand for care at home at this time, although the health authority is working on preparing for the potential increase.

“In some cases, clients with lower needs are requesting less support as they practice social distancing or have additional family support as some family members are home from work,” Fraser Health spokesperson Aletta Vanderheyden says.

“While this is the trend right now, we anticipate there may be individuals who start to require care if they become sick. We are continually assessing the needs of our clients and have plans in place to help us manage when increased care is needed.”

In a conversation Smith had with B.C.’s public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Health Minister Adrian Dix, she says the importance of home support was raised.

“Community home support workers are definitely recognized as being a really important piece of the healthcare puzzle in our province. And we understand that there has been sort of a stock-taking if you will wear PPE [personal protection equipment], and that there will be a redistribution if needed and deployment of PPE for all healthcare workers.”

Smith says while the pandemic impacts various health care workers are “health care heroes,” even in times people may have forgotten them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Health tells NEWS 1130 claims about a lack of supplies being provided to workers are not accurate. The health authority insists workers have been given enough supplies.