Ottawa Hospital starts rationing masks for staff as COVID-19 spreads

Ottawa Hospital - Civic Campus (File Photo/CTV Ottawa)

UPDATE: A hospital source told CTV News Ottawa Thursday night that "staff will be meeting over the next week to discuss how to operationalize and the policy will not be immediately implemented.”

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Ottawa’s largest hospital is rationing face masks for staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ottawa Hospital says it will now be providing staff members two face masks per shift, according to a memo obtained by CTV News Ottawa.

“I am worried that the hospital is leaving us unprotected,” said a frontline nurse at the Ottawa Hospital. CTV News has chosen to protect the identities of staff members due to confidentiality concerns.

A hospital employee that has worked in the Intensive Care Unit tells CTV’s Christina Succi there was no prior limit on the number of masks available per shift, saying members could use a new one whenever doing “anything that required it.”

“Every time I go into a patient room, I have to put on a surgical mask with a shield, easily 25 masks per shift, probably more.”

According to the memo sent to staff on Wednesday, obtained by CTV News Ottawa, the Ottawa Hospital notified staff of a policy change for mask use and conservation.

“Our review was guided by the principle that any changes must consider the impact on staff safety, and judicious use of masks to reduce the possibility of an undersupply later when risk becomes more widespread and higher,” said the email memo from hospital management.

“The policy decision provides two surgical masks per shift for all staff who interact with patients. This change is intended to reduce the risk to all healthcare workers posed by the general population.”

“We are nervous about what is happening with supplies in the future,” said another frontline nurse at the Ottawa Hospital.

“We haven’t even seen the crisis start yet.”

The Ontario Government promised that more personal protective equipment is coming for hospitals, but has not provided a date for when that gear will get into the hands of frontline staff.

Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott told reporters Wednesday afternoon there is “no rationing of personal protective equipment right now for frontline workers.”

“If they need the masks, they will get the masks.”

Elliott said Ontario is working at “procurement 24/7. We know that we need to get more supplies. Ontario companies are stepping up in great numbers to help us.”

When asked by reporters why hospitals are limiting masks for staff on a short-term basis, Elliott said “those decisions are being made by hospitals. We are sending them PPE (personal protective equipment), the hospitals are making the decisions with respect on what their frontline health care workers need.”

“We are continuing to send supplies to them, and we are continuing to procure supplies,” said Elliott, adding “as of today, we certainly have the supplies that we need. But it is up to the individual hospitals to deal with the supplies that are being provided to them.”

The Health Minister tweeted earlier this week that the province had secured 12 million sets of surgical gloves, one million N95 respirators, and nearly six million surgical masks to be deployed to hospitals in Ontario.

Concerns of supply shortages across Canada’s hospitals comes as the federal government is facing criticism for sending 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment to China in February, when it was the epicentre of the novel coronavirus. 

“I am so baffled by the decision to send our personal protective equipment to China that I can only guess what was going through the head of bureaucrats who made this foolish move,” said Amir Attaran, professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of epidemiology and public health and its faculty of law, speaking on News Talk 580 CFRA’s The Morning Rush with Bill Carroll.

“Most masks in the world are made in China, so China was already in a position to meet its needs.”

Attaran adds that the federal government should have instead been bracing for COVID-19’s inevitable arrival to Canada.

“We should have been in the mode of getting ready, getting our supplies together, not exploiting them as a gift to China.”

The mask rationing provisions have also been put in place at a number of hospitals in Toronto.

A doctor meanwhile at the Ottawa Hospital tells CTV News Ottawa, they are concerned for the safety of both staff and patients.

“I can’t believe that we are undoing years of infection control practices and putting staff and their families at risk.”

CTV News Ottawa reached out to The Ottawa Hospital for clarification on whether the face mask limit applies to health care staff treating suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases. 

The Ottawa Hospital provided the following statement to CTV News Ottawa shortly after our story went live at 3 p.m.

“The Ottawa Hospital follows guidance from Chief Medical Officer of Health, Ministry of Health, Ottawa Public Health and our Infection Prevention and Control team, on personal protective equipment for staff, including surgical masks.”

“All public health organizations recommend droplet and contact precautions for COVID-19 patients, and airborne precautions for aerosol-generating procedures. We understand that in some circumstances, staff will require more than 2 masks per shift. We have been providing regular updates to staff, and will continue to do so.”

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