TORONTO — Ontario is trying to “water down” guidelines that give health-care workers in long-term care homes access to N95 masks, the union representing them said Friday, while Premier Doug Ford insisted protective equipment is available to the workers.

The province asked the Canadian Union of Public Employees to begin discussions about removing that access from the provincial rules because it believes the masks aren’t necessary in every setting in the facilities, the union said.

Ontario is also seeking to control use of the limited supply of the masks, the province’s health minister acknowledged Friday.

The N95 masks block aerosolized virus particles and offer better protection than surgical masks currently in use, said Candace Rennick, the union’s secretary-treasurer and a former personal support worker.

“We woke up (Thursday) morning to one of our members who has just died of COVID on the front line, and you want to talk to us about watering down what we consider already weak protections for the front line,” Rennick said. “It’s a bit offensive.”

More than 1,700 workers in the province’s long-term care homes have tested positive for COVID-19, according to provincial data. CUPE, which represents 35,000 long-term care workers, said Thursday that a personal support worker in Orleans, Ont., died from the virus earlier this week.

Rennick said the government needs to re-think its personal protective gear strategy in the homes because of the rising rate of illness among residents and staff. The province should be working to secure more N95 masks and make them widely available to all staff in the facilities instead of dialling back access, she said.

“If the surgical masks are so great and everybody’s wearing them, then why do we have this wildfire spread?” she said. 

The union also said the N95 masks are not widely available to workers despite the provincial rule.

“They’re being told ‘No, no, you don’t really need that,'” said Rennick. “People say they have masks at their facility, but they’re somewhere in the facility under lock and key. They are not readily available.”

Premier Ford said it’s “unacceptable” that long-term care workers are not getting the personal protective equipment (PPE)they require and stressed that it is available at the homes.

“We’ve sent out numerous letters, and it’s so frustrating hearing that the front-line people are having problems getting the PPE,” Ford said. “What I recommend — just call. Call my office. Call anyone. We’ll have it over there.”

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is talking with long-term care home operators about ensuring workers are given N95 masks. If workers want the gear they should be getting it, she said.

Elliott said the province is talking with the unions about the use of N95s because supply of the masks is limited everywhere.

“We had conversations with them yesterday,” Elliott said. “They certainly understand that there are limits to the number of N95 masks we’re able to procure right now because there is a global interest in acquiring them.”

Elliott said the government has also talked to the unions about the potential to reuse N95 masks if they can be properly disinfected.

“We are forwarding (the union’s) concerns to the chief medical officer of health for his consideration, but we absolutely want our front-line care workers to have the protection that they need,” she said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government needs to provide proper protection to workers in long-term care to protect both them and residents.

“This has been an on-going problem here in Ontario and that responsibility lies with (Premier Doug) Ford,” she said.

Ontario reported 477 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, and 63 more deaths.

That brings the total number of cases to 19,598, an increase of 2.5 per cent over the previous day. Any decrease in growth rates appears to have stalled, with numbers jumping between 2.1 and 3.0 per cent this week.

The chief medical officer of health is looking for a consistent, two- to four-week decrease in the number of new cases before advising the province to move to its first stage of reopening the economy.

Ontario’s total number of cases includes 1,540 deaths and 13,990 resolved cases.

Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford’s office confirmed he briefly visited his cottage on Easter Sunday — days after urging Ontarians to stay home.

“On the morning of Easter Sunday, the Premier drove alone to his family property up north to check on the plumbing as the property is under construction and has been over the past two years,” spokeswoman Ivana Yelich said in a statement.

“He spent less than an hour there and on his travel he didn’t stop anywhere and he didn’t interact with anyone.”

The trip came days after Ford said at a press conference that he wouldn’t be travelling to his cottage that weekend.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2020.

Shawn Jeffords and Allison Jones, The Canadian Press



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