Winnipeg nurse with COVID-19 says health-care workers don’t have enough PPE to stay safe

For the next week, Eric Wheeler is confined to the basement of his Winnipeg home because of a COVID-19 diagnosis, while his three- and four-year-old kids knock on the door, asking to come in and play.

Normally, Wheeler would be working long hours at Victoria General Hospital as a nurse in the 5N unit — one of two with outbreaks of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Wheeler says a patient was transported from St. Boniface Hospital to Victoria. Staff at Victoria didn’t know the patient was suspected of having COVID-19, so the person wasn’t isolated in their room. 

A few days later, the patient started showing symptoms and later tested positive for the illness, Wheeler said.

“All of a sudden, we were just getting [suspected COVID-19 cases], like five a day, almost. And it just spread like wildfire.”

According to the last update on the hospital’s website on Friday, there are 32 patients and 26 staff, including Wheeler, who have contracted COVID-19 after being linked to the outbreak. He believes the reason so many health-care workers are sick is partially because most wear surgical masks and goggles, not N95 masks.

“As my colleagues slowly got sick, one by one, I started to feel almost naked with [a surgical mask] on,” he said.

Victoria General Hospital currently has two outbreaks affecting 32 patients and 26 staff. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Wheeler says he only got the specialized small particulate mask when he asked for one, which was just before he tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. He only got one per day.

“I feel really disappointed that our so-called heroes aren’t being properly protected.”

Wheeler’s been self-isolating since his symptoms started more than a week ago, but his wife Cortney and two children found out they tested negative on Saturday, so they have to stay apart.

“My kids are my everything. It sucks,” he said. “And I enjoy my work and I enjoy helping people, and I can’t do that now. And from a distance, I have to watch them suffer. It’s just frustrating.”

The Manitoba Nurses Union said it has heard reports from members recently that Victoria General Hospital is rationing personal protective equipment.

Union president Darlene Jackson said nurses there are doing everything they can to provide the best care for patients, despite concerns about how management is handling the situation.

“They’ve faced pressure not to use N95 masks, despite determining that they were necessary after performing point-of-care risk assessments,” Jackson said in an emailed statement. “Some nurses faced pressure not to get tested for COVID, only to have test results come back positive.”

Open letter posted

Cortney posted a letter on social media on Saturday to inform Manitobans that “nurses and patients are not being adequately protected.”

It’s since been shared by more than 2,000 people.

“[M]y heart goes out to the many Manitobans who will lose loved ones because of this negligence,” she wrote.

In an emailed statement on Sunday, a spokesperson for Shared Health said Manitoba has a joint PPE committee, which includes members of the Manitoba Nurses Union, that monitors supply levels and compliance with PPE guidelines.

Those guidelines say staff working with patients suspected or confirmed to have COVID-19 get additional protective equipment, the statement said.

“No staff are expected to reuse wet or soiled masks (N95 or otherwise) and N95s are to be replaced following a break,” it said.

A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said the process for ensuring safe patient transfers between sites is supposed to include putting health information relevant to their care — including suspected contact with or diagnosis of COVID-19 — on their transfer form and in their electronic patient record.

If any new information about a patient is learned after their transfer (like a COVID-19 diagnosis) those details should be communicated to the receiving site, the spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Sunday. Contact tracing is also done for each patient with COVID-19 to identify anyone potentially exposed.

“We are reviewing the case in question to determine the sequence of events and to identify any potential gaps that can help improve this important process,” the statement said.

“The safety of our staff and patients is everyone’s highest priority, and we encourage all staff to continue to observe all guidelines and protocols carefully and voice their concerns anytime they believe there may be a safety issue.”

Cortney says other nurses have thanked her for speaking out about issues they want to flag, but won’t voice publicly for fear of reprisal.

“People have asked me, ‘Are you not scared of your husband losing his job for being a whistleblower?’ and my response is, ‘I’m scared of my husband going back to work and not being properly protected,'” she said.

“I think it’s worth the risk. And if he loses his job over this, then so be it to protect our kids, and our family and the vulnerable people that we love.”