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Ford government mandate empowers hospitals, long-term care homes to ‘deny’ healthworkers N95 masks

The mandate says employers can 'deny' PSWs and other staff N95 masks outside of outbreaks and expert assessments

Healthcare workers across Ontario are struggling against a Ford government mandate empowering employers to deny Personal Support Workers, custodians and other staff access to N95 medical masks.

Back in March, a spokesperson for the Canadian Union of Public Employees told The Toronto Star, despite a province-wide stockpile of N95 masks, many of the union’s members were not provided N95 masks as needed.

Te union told the long-term care commission: “Employers have consistently refused to provide CUPE members who work in homes with confirmed, presumed, or suspected cases of COVID-19, including front line workers who provide direct care to residents who test positive for COVID-19, with adequate and appropriate PPE, including N95 masks.” 

The union’s Feb  16, 2021 submission noted only in October 2020 were provincial mask directives altered to designate that any worker — either within two metres of a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case or in an outbreak — “must be provided with an N95 mask.” However, that same submission noted: “Even with this change many of our members still find themselves having to argue to access this basic right.”

The Ministry’s February 19, 2021 mask directive, obtained by PressProgress, reads –without a Point of Care Risk Assessment by a registered nurse or other “regulated health professional” and outside of outbreaks — employers can “deny” non-regulated healthcare workers, including PSWs, N95 masks.

SEIU Healthcare President Sharleen Stewart said the government remains seemingly intent on retaining this standard.

“It’s appalling that over a year and a half into this pandemic, frontline healthcare workers are still being denied access to N95 masks,” Stewart told PressProgress.

“The Ontario government should have acknowledged that COVID-19 was an airborne virus and mandated that all frontline workers be protected to the fullest,” Stewart said. “It’s because of that delay that many healthcare employers today, especially those operating for profit, don’t feel they have to provide the personal protection equipment these workers need to protect themselves, their patients and their families.”

Michael Hurley, president of CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, likewise said the policy continues — with the risk of serious consequences.

“The Ontario government’s resistance that verges on stubborn refusal to accept airborne transmission of COVID-19,  has led to thousands of unnecessary deaths and infections, particularly in long-term care,” Hurley said. “This resistance continues despite the science and evidence that higher calibre masks like N95 for health care staff would have provided increased protection against infection from an airborne virus.”

“The science is clear that COVID-19 spreads predominantly via airborne transmission,” Palliative Care Physician & University of Toronto Lecturer Dr. Amit Arya told PressProgress. “It is absolutely absurd that we would deny any health worker access to fit tested N95 respirators.”

Neither the Ontario Hospital Association nor the Ministry of Health responded to requests for comment.

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