Healthcare workers on Vancouver Island say exemptions for travelling employees pose a risk to patients in hospitals.
One worker from a hospital in the central-North Island region, who asked Black Press to conceal their identity because they feared losing their job, has been forced to take unpaid leave in order to self-isolate after an international trip.
“It’s my legal responsibility to keep my staff safe,” they said. Their family had been travelling in the United States and returned to Vancouver Island on March 12.
When they first returned they were told by management that self-isolation was the rule. Then the next day, the rule changed, and they were told they must report to work.
On March 15 Island Health updated their Pandemic Response Plan with a “different direction” for health authority employees coming back to work than any other industry.
“In pandemic times, we enact a call to action for Healthcare workers to help the rest of our citizens make their way through the pandemic,” an information sheet distributed by Island Health notes. “We play a critical role in caring for the rest of our population. Therefore, the benefit of having our teams at work is greater than the risk of keeping us at home.”
Only a doctor or someone else similarly qualified can direct staff to self-isolate, according to Island Health.
(See entire document at the end of this article.)
This double standard doesn’t sit well with healthcare workers, some who say they are being penalized for choosing to self-isolate after travelling.
“I said (to my manager) I’m not really feeling good about going back to work. I’ve been on three different planes in 24 hours,” they said. “This is worrisome for me to come back to work and potentially infect people. I want to flatten this curve too.”
They have been forced to use sick time and banked overtime for part of self-isolation, and will not be paid once that runs out. They are going to fulfill their 14-day self-isolation anyway.
Another health care worker who also didn’t want to be identified over fear they would lose their job is concerned over the exemption.
“If they’ve been travelling this is only putting our most vulnerable at risk; you have to be in contact with them,” they said. “This policy needs to be reviewed.”
A registered nurse (RN) who lives and works in a North Island hospital said they returned from an international trip on March 12 and was initially told to self-isolate. The next day, Island Health contacted the RN and said they were exempt from self-isolating because they are a healthcare worker.
“I questioned this, but was not given any alternative,” they said. “We are over-staffed at this time due to elective surgery cancellations, so my absence from work would not have had any effect on patient care. In light of the severity of the COVID-19 crisis, I am having a difficult time understanding the risk involved for my co-workers and patients by having me on the work floor if we are not in a critical staffing situation.”
The only healthcare workers required to self-isolate for 14 days are those returning from Hubei Province in China, Iran or Italy. Anyone travelling anywhere else is asked to wear a mask, limit outside contacts and practice social distancing.
When asked on March 19 about the different standards for self-isolation, B.C. Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said self-isolation can create a challenge for staffing of essential services, including nurses and doctors, paramedics, police and fire services.
If a healthcare worker has a “critical function” in providing frontline care there is a possibility that leadership in that workplace can allow that person to work by making small changes to their tasks. Henry said some of those alterations include “wearing a mask, separating from other healthcare workers and doing self-checks on a regular basis.
“It is not just a blanket exemption, it is very controlled, and it is only when it is going to compromise health care,” she said.
There are at least 55 healthcare workers in British Columbia that have tested positive for COVID-19 as of March 26.
Joe McQuaid, executive director of the Alberni-Clayoquot Continuing Care Society, which looks after Echo Village and Fir Park Village, has taken the rapidly changing rules in stride. He returned from a holiday in Mexico on March 6, before the federal government started recommending self-isolation for travellers who return from international destinations.
“I was symptom free,” he said. He went back to work at Fir Park and Echo Village seniors facilities in Port Alberni.
Notification from the health ministry came six days after his return that travellers had to self-isolate, except for healthcare workers.
“There are now two standards: one for health care workers…if they weren’t showing symptoms they are to return to work,” McQuaid said.
The federal government has since invoked the Quarantine Act which makes self-isolation mandatory for people returning from international destinations, which includes the United States and Mexico.
“That shows how quickly evolving this story is,” McQuaid said.
— With files from Ashley Wadhwani, Black Press