Rising to the Challenge of COVID-19

Rising to the Challenge of Covid-19

VOICE OF NURSES BCNU President Christine Sorensen participates in a TV interview from her home in Kamloops. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, BCNU has made effective use of the media to reach the public, the government and key decision makers.

Nurses' health and safety has been BCNU's number one priority throughout the pandemic

Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the biggest challenge British Columbia's health-care system has ever faced.

For nurses working in BC's hospitals, care homes and in the community, the last few months have taken an emotional and physical toll, and have demanded personal and professional sacrifices.

The pandemic has also been an unprecedented experience for BCNU. The union has been navigating the public health crisis on a seemingly hourly basis, listening to nurses, analyzing data and determining what every public health order and decision means for the 48,000 members BCNU proudly represents.

Whether it's sounding the alarm on occupational health and safety risks, demanding fair access to personal protective equipment (PPE), addressing the disruption caused by the provincial health officer's single-site order, or fighting for the protection of nurses who've fallen ill from the virus, BCNU has spent the last five months ensuring nurses in every part of the province are heard and supported during this global challenge.

In early January, when the novel coronavirus first landed on the world's radar, BCNU was one of several health-care unions that took part in weekly briefings with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, health authorities and health ministry officials that were held to monitor the growing concerns surrounding the spread of COVID-19.

As the public health crisis grew, BCNU President Christine Sorensen, a public health nurse herself with experience on the front lines during the 2003 SARS outbreak, quickly became a reliable source for media interviews. She regularly attends guest panels on radio and television news programs, and explains nurses' perspective to the public at large.

"BCNU has been the voice of the nursing profession throughout this pandemic, and the media is a platform that reaches the public, the government and all decision makers," says Sorensen. "Nurses are the backbone of the health-care system, and the media is very much aware of the important role we play."

Global Pandemic Declared

When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, BC's health-care system immediately went into overdrive, and drastic measures were taken to prepare the province for a possible worst-case scenario that had already begun playing out in other parts of the world.

BCNU also rose to the challenge by ramping up its member services and opening a 24/7 phone line to respond to nurses' health and safety concerns. BCNU OH&S officers and labour relations experts were available around the clock to assist members with a range of contract issues that arose as health employers responded to the pandemic.

"All BCNU resources were directed to supporting our members in every way possible during the public health emergency and increasing the support and services we provide," says Sorensen.

In mid-March, the province cancelled tens of thousands of elective surgeries to make room for what could be a surge of people needing hospitalization for COVID-19. The work to convert the Vancouver Convention Centre's west building into overflow space for a further 271 beds made it clear that the province was implementing an "all-hands-on-deck" approach to flattening the curve.

"There was a lot of upheaval in the first few weeks for members," says Sorensen. "We spent a lot of time educating nurses on their health and safety rights, reminding them about the importance of accessing mental health support, and sending out information to retired and student nurses who showed interest in working and assisting their nursing colleagues during the pandemic."

Challenging The Self-Isolation Exemption For Health-Care Workers

BCNU's commitment to keeping members healthy and safe saw the union challenging Dr. Henry early on in the crisis. Dr. Henry issued an order on March 13 requiring everyone travelling from outside Canada to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. However health-care workers who provide direct patient care – the majority being nurses – were excluded from this order with the exception of those who had travelled to Hubei Province in China, Italy, or Iran.

"We spent a lot of time educating nurses on their health and safety rights."

- BCNU President Christine Sorensen

Sorensen sent a letter to Dr. Henry on March 14 asking for clarification and the rationale for the exemption.

"BCNU is always willing to work with the health-care sector employers and the Ministry of Health to ensure that safe and adequate care is provided to British Columbians," she wrote. "For this to happen, British Columbians need an honest assessment of the current environment we are in, where worker and personal protective equipment shortages are driving the decisions and directives coming from your office, and which directly impact tens of thousands of health-care workers and the millions of British Columbians they care for."

Dr. Henry acknowledged that nurses who chose to self-isolate may do so.

"While we encouraged nurses not to travel outside of Canada and abide by the orders coming from the provincial health officer, we believed they should be quarantined like all British Columbians," she says. "As regulated professionals, it's critical that nurses alone determine their fitness to practice and protect their patients."

Sorensen also stated in her correspondence that it was critical nurses returning from travel remain healthy. "They will also be needed at the end of their self-isolation to help relieve the load of co-workers who are exhausted or infected," she said.

Prioritizing PPE

Since the first case of COVID-19 appeared in BC in mid-January, BCNU's primary focus has been the health and safety its members.

All through the pandemic, nurses have continued to report that employers are locking up PPE at their worksite in an attempt to ration the products, or they report being instructed to wear the same surgical or respirator mask and eye protection for entire shifts that involve repeated close contact with patients.

Nurses' experiences were in direct contrast to the almost daily reports from Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Henry that announced large shipments of PPE coming into the province. But the supply of PPE means little if workers are unable to effectively access it.

"PPE, such as N95 respirator masks, gowns, gloves, face shields should be available to nurses when it is needed and not rationed out by the employer," says Sorensen. "We've heard from nurses who've been asked to take questionable measures to preserve the PPE they've been given, like storing it in Tupperware, or placing it on paper towel on their shifts. This not only puts their health at risk, but it undermines their professional judgment and slows down the ability to provide safe patient care."

BCNU issued a news release in early May to raise serious concerns about whether health authorities are doing enough to address the depleted supply of PPE. A BCNU telephone townhall that same month polled members in attendance on PPE access, and found that one in four nurses don't have sufficient access to PPE at their worksite.

"We continue to advocate for nurses' safety and their right to determine the level of protection they need so they can provide safe patient care," Sorensen says. "Tens of thousands of pieces of PPE is wonderful news for nurses who are on the frontlines of COVID-19, but if access to it is restricted or being rationed, it is of no use. We must ensure the government is transparent on the amount of PPE it is procuring so that we're prepared if and when we experience a second wave."

Advocacy Comes In Many Forms

BCNU's support for its members has come in different forms throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Daily media calls have focused on a variety of topics including nurses' health and well-being and the sacrifices they've made.

"Nurses were sleeping in their cars, and in the garage and went weeks without seeing their children and family members in order to protect them," says Sorensen. "We advocated that hotel rooms that stood empty could be offered to health-care workers at discounted rates."

The union was also pleased to see that the government responded to its calls for free parking for nurses and health-care workers at health facilities across the province.

"Nurses who are infected with the virus while performing their duty to care for patients must be supported."

- BCNU President Christine Sorensen

In a March 30 letter to the premier, Sorensen wrote, "It is critical the government stands with nurses in every way it can. This means ensuring every nurse has access to personal protective equipment and N95 masks, that daycare options are there for families, clean scrubs are available, and free parking is implemented at all hospitals so that a nurse or health-care worker doesn't have to worry about facing a stiff parking fine after a 14-hour shift."

And in response British Columbians' overwhelming support nurses, BCNU made a $10,000 donation to Food Banks BC in early April as a way to give back to the community.

Supporting Nurses Who Have Contracted COVID-19

While BC has aggressively flattened the curve, nurses rank at the top of the list of health-care workers who have contracted COVID-19. As of June 8, 136 nurses in British Columbia have been diagnosed with the virus and account for just over 20 percent of coronavirus cases among health-care workers in BC.

The unfortunate reality is that this number will likely keep climbing. That's why BCNU is calling for the immediate inclusion of COVID-19 to the list of occupational diseases that are presumed to have been contracted in the workplace.

"It's not fair that nurses who test positive for COVID-19 could face lengthy delays in accessing much-needed compensation through WorkSafeBC," says Sorensen. "They shouldn't have to worry about running into barriers when filing a claim."

BCNU recently sent a letter to Labour Minister Harry Bains expressing concerns over the potential for delays. The union has also launched an online campaign that encourages the public to write their MLA and ask that they put pressure on the government to ensure the inclusion of COVID-19 occurs as soon as possible.

"We're concerned the process will be unreasonably slow and unable to respond in a timely manner given the acuteness of the pandemic," explains Sorensen. "Nurses who are infected with the virus while performing their duty to care for patients must be supported. The current system requires a policy analysis and can be very laborious and time-consuming."

BCNU will be monitoring WorkSafeBC's decision on COVID-19 presumption, as well as what's to come in the next chapter of the pandemic, and what it will mean for BC's nurses.

"We are still in unchartered territory and we are not out of the woods yet," Sorensen stresses. "As elective surgeries resume and the pressure increases to get back to normal in the health-care system and society at large, nurses will be expected to be there to perform – and BCNU will be there too, ensuring that BC's nursing professionals are supported, are heard and are safe." •

UPDATE (Summer 2020)

UPDATED: November 18, 2022

If you are NOT receiving updates, news, and events emailed to you, log in to the BCNU Member Portal and update your information.