By: Mike Anderson
With 13 staff members and 29 residents testing positive for COVID-19, personal support workers (PSWs) at River Glen Haven are overworked, stressed and fear that it’s just a matter of time before they get infected.
Although management has banned staff from talking to the media, the Post was able to conduct a series of interviews with PSWs at RGH. Their names have been changed to protect their identities, as they fear they may lose their jobs for speaking out.
All of the PSWs interviewed said that staffing levels at RGH have reached a tipping point. With so many staff members ill and others deciding to stay at home rather than risk being exposed to the virus, the remaining staff are stretched to their limits, and residents are not receiving a normal standard of care.
“We have lost a whole shift. We need staff. We’ll take anybody. If they want to feed, change bedding, little things that anybody can do… It’s just to relieve us so we can do what the residents need,” said Jane who’s working three 12-hour shifts a week, plus overtime, because she doesn’t want to let her co-workers down and the residents go without care.
“I feel bad with these residents are so sick, and we can’t be by their side a lot because we’re busy with other things. We’re not doing as much care as we should be doing. We need more staff. These residents deserve a lot more than what they’re getting.”
During the outbreak, floors that would typically have four PSWs working an eight-hour shift, are now staffed with three PSWs that must work 12-hour shifts caring for more than 30 residents.
There are also fewer support workers, like housekeepers, meal servers and caretakers, so PSWs must-do tasks they don’t usually do like cleaning, delivering meals, and even building maintenance.
Mealtimes are particularly stressful and time-consuming, as meals must are served in full PPE, including masks, face shields and gowns.
“The kitchen makes the food, piles it up in a cart and sends it up, and we have to distribute it and go from room to room and feed. It takes over two hours to do a meal pass, normally it would take one hour,” said Susan, who says there’s usually a staff member designated as a feeder in each room, but now PSWs must take on that role. “Then afterwards we’re housekeepers because then we have to collect all the garbage.”
The PSWs said that staff shortages have forced Registered Practical Nurses (RPNs) to do the work of PSWs. And, Registered Nurses (RNs) are filling in for the RPNs. Managers have also started to pitch in, but they lack training and are not used to wearing full PPE, which means their risk of getting infected is higher.
Despite the staff shortages, PSWs are trying to provide the best possible care under challenging conditions.
“We are doing our best, and we’re trying to be there for them,” said Susan, but she added there are some things they are not doing to free up time for personal care.
“There’s things that you have to do to help the elderly because they are so frail. We don’t get them dressed. We keep them in their pyjamas. But we try to keep them as comfortable as possible and dry and clean. You don’t want them to breakdown, so have to reposition them all the time. And they’re being changed very often and washed at least four times in a shift.”
All these tasks must be completed in full PPE, but the PSWs are complaining that the PPE is not adequate and is putting them at risk.
“I don’t think any of the PPE is adequate protection, to be honest with you. I think the masks are very flimsy and there’s a lot of entry points,” said Jane.
“We’re wearing goggles as well, and we have our heads covered. But the gowns are see-through. They’re very, very flimsy.”
RGH issued N-95 masks and face shields in late April, after public health officials reversed their earlier position that surgical masks were sufficient.
According to several PSWs, these vital masks were given out too late, after RGH’s first cases began testing positive — some of the PSWs believe this may have contributed to the high number of staff infections.
It’s also possible that staff may have become infected when disrobing at the end of a shift, which must be done carefully to prevent contamination.
“We’re pulling the uniforms over our head, and it may be the virus is on the uniforms,” Susan said.
Another theory, more troubling, is that the virus is spreading through the air.
“Before we had the positive tests, we were going around with our masks, and you pull them down to breathe, and then pull them back up. So that could have been a way that we got it,” said Jane.
“The virus is so quick. We see it in the residents. Like one resident has it and the next day all of them have it. And you know that one resident didn’t move anywhere. That’s why I think it’s airborne and stays in the air. That could explain a lot.”
As to the cause of the initial infection, some PSWs believe it was the result of RGH bringing in agency staff, a standard practice for most private nursing homes.
But, according to the PSWs, at least one agency staff member in mid-April was exhibiting symptoms but decided to report to work anyway.
“All of our staff on the floor we’re very, very cautious. None of us were actually going out in the public. But the agency staff was coming on to the floor with their street clothes, with their bags. Some were working at other locations. And, one was coughing,” said one PSW.
While many of the infected PSWs are self-isolating at home, some have chosen to do so in motel rooms provided by RGH, rather than bring the virus home to their families.
But being separated from their families is taking an emotional total. One PSW said she hasn’t been able to see her family for nearly three weeks and fears getting sick and having to recover alone in a motel room.
People from the community have been dropping off groceries and sending their best wishes for a speedy recovery for staff who are ill. And, these gestures of kindness have not gone unnoticed.
“People are cooking as dinners and dropping off flowers. It’s just been overwhelming, but it’s also amazing,” said Susan, who’s also been staying at a motel for several weeks.
But, despite the constant stress, isolation and fear of infection, PSWs like Jane, Susan and their co-workers are heroes of a kind, trying to provide the best possible care they can under the most trying conditions.
“You know you’re going in there and there’s a possibility you could get very sick. There’s anxiety. But I’m not afraid of getting sick. What I’m afraid of is that when I’m sick, I’m not working,” said Jane.
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