By Charlene Scharf, Health Network Co-Coordinator
As we follow the crest of the second wave, and on the eve of the annual flu season, concerns are rising over the new pressures that will come to bear on the health care system. The vital healthcare workers across the health systems from long term care homes to hospitals and all in between have already faced unprecedented pressures and risks since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was clearly outlined in the International Council of Nurses (ICN) Report highlighting the alarming burden of disease and deaths from COVID-19 which discussed collected data globally in mid-August, 2020. It found that of the 52 national nursing associations in 50 countries, the infection rates for healthcare workers ranged from 1% to 30 % of all COVID-19 cases. The average rate was 10%. An alarming statistic from the study revealed “across 44 countries, there were 1097 deaths among nurses with the possibility of the actual deaths being much higher.”
In Canada, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) released their report in September 2020. The data was collected as of July 23rd of this year and was done with assistance from the Canadian Nurses Association and the Canadian Medical Association. The report “COVID-19 cases and deaths among health care workers in Canada”, demonstrated:
- Nearly 1 in 5 cases of COVID-19 or 19.4% of the total cases as at July 23rd had been among healthcare workers. This is nearly double the average found in the ICN report.
- 12 healthcare workers had died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began
- The majority (85.5%) of cases among healthcare workers had happened in Ontario & Quebec.
Both the ICN and the CIHI reports discuss that aside from the risk of infection, healthcare workers, direct-care support and other health team members including custodial staff are subject to verbal harassment, violence and discrimination due to their association with COVID-19. They also suffer from psychological harm, mental health distress and burn out which in turn could negatively impact patients in their environments. Howard Catton ICN CEO said, “Governments around the world have been slow or failed to protect nurses or others from the effects of the pandemic…” (ICN Press information). Mike Villeneuve, the Canadian Nurses Association’s (CAN) CEO echoes this concern with respect to Canadian nurses and other health care workers.
The ICN and the CNA both call on all governments to sign the WHO Health Worker Safety Charter which was launched on World Patient Safety Day, September 17, 2020. The Charter contains many of the ICN reports recommendation including safe staffing levels, having all the equipment need to do the job safely (including PPE), open communication in the workplace and reducing work-related stress.
To add to the unsafe environments being created during this pandemic, many healthcare providers and healthcare workers do not feel comfortable speaking up about them; neither do their patients. With the increased pressures and challenges come the increased risk of safety incidents. When healthcare providers are physically, mentally and psychologically distressed incidents such as medication errors and other miscommunications rise.
Without ensuring the health and safety across health services by creating a culture of safety in health with accessible and accepted methods of reporting unsafe practices and preventing them, the rights of all workers and their patients will continue to be compromised. Workers’ and patients’ lives will continue to be put at risk.
Healthcare workers have and will continue to play a critical role in this pandemic. The reports and recommendations are there to protect those vital workers who were so much lauded months ago. While people made wonderful outpourings of respect, recognition and appreciation for their sacrifices, these same workers need to be protected, upheld, and supported by their workplaces as well as by the provincial/territorial and national governments. The reports and data are out there, best practices have been established, what is needed now is for concrete demonstrations of supporting, protecting and defending the rights of all levels of healthcare workers.
Read the Amnesty report Exposed, Silenced, Attacked: Failures to Protect Health and Essential Workers During the COVID-19 Pandemic