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Two orderlies at a Montreal long-term care home wear makeshift outfits made with garbage bags after the facility had run out of medical gowns. The photo was posted on Facebook on April 22, 2020.handout

One nurse described how she got a chemical burn and got sick after her medical gear wasn’t properly cleaned. Another was left on her own to help residents in an unfamiliar nursing home.

A third testimony recalled that a co-worker got in trouble for sharing a photo of orderlies wearing garbage bags after their long-term care home ran out of gowns.

Weary by the hardships of dealing with COVID-19, a dozen Quebec health-care workers gathered on a video call Monday and shared their horror stories with reporters.

It was the latest display of frustration by Quebec medical staffers who in past weeks have gone on social media to vent about working in unsafe conditions and the trauma of dealing with so many deaths.

At the same time, nurses contacted by The Globe and Mail in recent days said they were concerned that they would be disciplined if they spoke to journalists without the authorization of officials at local health authorities or health boards.

The issue came up at a legislature committee last Friday, when Health Minister Danielle McCann was asked whether workers would be reprimanded if they flagged issues in the province’s response to the pandemic.

“If there are problems, we want to know," the minister said. "So there is no Omerta [code of silence] any more. We want people to speak up, especially in situations like this. We are in the middle of a humanitarian crisis.”

In fact, medical workers who appeared on the video conference said, they were caught under a bureaucracy that didn’t value them and didn’t respond to their concerns. They said that assurances by Premier François Legault and Ms. McCann that there was enough gear weren’t matched by conditions in the field, that the Premier’s praise of them as “guardian angels” rang hollow.

Nearly 80 per cent of the 2,398 Quebeckers killed by COVID-19 so far lived in long-term care or seniors’ homes.

At his daily briefing Monday, Mr. Legault said 11,200 health care workers were missing because of the disease. “It puts an enormous pressure on the network, not just seniors’ homes but also hospitals.”

Mr. Legault was not asked directly about the workers’ news conference. He told reporters he was going to announce bonuses to encourage more employees to work full-time. “I prefer that to conscripting them,” he said.

In fact, some workers had no choice when they were sent to help at seniors’ homes. A government decree in March allowed that by suspending parts of the health-sector collective agreements.

One of the workers reassigned to seniors’ homes was Marie-Ève Bouffard, a perinatal nurse. In a testimony read at the news conference, she said she landed at a facility that was so understaffed she had to work a 16-hour shift.

She only had a regular procedural mask, not the better-fitting N95 respirator, even though she had to help agitated, coughing patients.

Face shields were soaked in disinfectant and reused. One night, the person handling that task forgot to dilute the chemical. It burned Ms. Bouffard’s face and she had to pull off the shield while she was looking after a COVID-19 patient.

She contracted the disease. She said that the local health board stopped paying for the hotel where she had been staying to protect her family from infection while she worked.

Lucie Labonté, a community-clinic nurse, was sent to a private elder-care home. “I had to look after eight COVID-positive residents all night, on my own, without help. … The home’s staff had left. There was no adequate protection, no N95 available. The patients were lined up in a common room, no private space, no sinks, no bathrooms.”

After a week, three of the seven nurses from her clinic who went to help in nursing homes had tested positive, including her.

The lack of protective gear also came up in the testimony of Natalie Stake-Doucet, who volunteered at a Montreal long-term care home where scores died of COVID-19.

She said they had to wash and reuse disposable gowns, then eventually ran out of them.

They were told they wouldn’t get new outfits for a week, but one orderly posted a picture of herself with a co-worker wearing garbage bags and they were resupplied after two days. The orderly was threatened with a reprimand.

Terrie Laplante-Beauchamp, who volunteered as an orderly at the LaSalle long-term care home, said she and other newcomers were sent on their first day to an infected floor. They lacked equipment and hadn’t been given instructions on how to keep clean or isolate patients.

She was eventually hospitalized with COVID-19.

“Health workers have been gagged and left to their own device, all that on a paltry pay,” she said.

“They have been forced to choose between Ms. A, who’s been soaking in her urine for hours, Mr. B, who hasn’t had food or drink yet, or Ms. C, who is screaming in pain because she hasn’t been moved since the morning.”

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