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Registered nurse Cayli Hunt puts on her personal protective equipment prior to entering a COVID positive room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul's hospital in downtown Vancouver, on April 21, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Nurses already lacking an adequate supply of personal protective equipment have sometimes been given masks with straps that don’t tie or gowns that don’t fully cover them, the head of the B.C. Nurses’ Union says.

Christine Sorensen said Monday the supply issue is affecting nurses in every health authority and has prompted 1,700 complaints to the union from its members across the province.

She said some nurses are expected to use one mask during a 12-hour shift, but that goes against normal procedures in protecting workers from infectious diseases.

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Some hospitals keep personal protective equipment at only a central location where nurses are expected to sign it out as strict counts of N95 masks are kept, Ms. Sorenson said.

“It should be on the unit where they are providing care. For a nurse to have to go and look for personal protective equipment, that delays patient care,” she said.

“We have asked for it to be returned to every unit so nurses have unfettered access and they do not have to ask another person, a manager, on the floor if they can access an N95 mask,” she said.

“If they are having difficulty accessing personal protective equipment, we are asking them to advise the union, advise the nurses, make sure they’re transparent and tell us exactly what the supply is,” Ms. Sorensen said of health authorities.

British Columbia’s provincial health officer Bonnie Henry released a COVID-19 report on Monday, saying 428 health care workers in the province were infected with the virus as of April 28, reflecting 21 per cent of cases.

Dr. Henry did not provide a breakdown of which health care workers have become infected, but Ms. Sorensen said all of them should go to work knowing they’ll have the right equipment to safely do their job.

The Health Ministry did not immediately provide a response to the union’s concerns about personal protective equipment.

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Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses, said most provinces appear to have enough personal protective equipment, but some of it may be saved because of fears about a second wave of the virus, which amounts to “bad practice.”

“Our major concern is the fact that we’re not dealing adequately with the front-line workers of this wave. We’re thinking of tomorrow, but we have to protect the workers of today,” he said.

“Health care unions are working with employers and government to get more supply to the provinces, to get it into the hospitals and the long-term care facilities and home care.”

Reusing masks is common and unacceptable, though face shields can be reused if washed properly, Ms. Silas said, adding lessons about preparedness for a pandemic weren’t learned from previous experiences and plenty of warnings.

“The system should have been ready after SARS, after H1N1, after Ebola. We went through all the procedures, but our system wasn’t ready.”

However, being prepared for the next wave and the next pandemic will be critical because the health care system can’t afford to be without workers who are at risk of becoming ill, she said.

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“When they’re infected, they’re off for 14 days minimum. Just that threat and that cost to the health care system will wake up many bean counters.”

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