Ebola "false alarms" and pro-active inspections of five large Ontario hospitals have revealed gaps in preparedness for the lethal virus, according to a national nurses' union that is one of several nursing organizations across Canada warning their workers do not have enough training or protective equipment to safely treat Ebola patients.
In a letter to Canada's chief public health officer, the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions highlighted five instances in which unnamed Ontario hospitals "failed the 'Ebola readiness' test," including a case in which "one [potential] patient wasn't identified because screening and readiness wasn't in place where the patient entered the hospital."
Readying front-line workers in Canada to handle Ebola has taken on a new urgency after it was confirmed on the weekend that a Dallas nurse contracted the virus while treating a patient, making her the second health-care worker to contract it outside Africa.
The CFNU letter, which was sent Friday, pointed to shortcomings in Canada in training, equipment and procedures – all concerns that nursing leaders in B.C., Alberta and Ontario echoed in interviews Tuesday.
"The preparation for many of our members has been an e-mail referring them to a United States CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] link on Ebola," said Gayle Duteil, the president of the British Columbia Nurses' Union. "That's the gist of our preparation."
The nursing leaders said personal protective equipment for nurses was in some cases ill-fitting or inadequate; that most nurses were not being drilled on how to take the equipment on and off; and that the Ebola education their workers had received was far from sufficient.
Perry Kendall, the provincial health officer for B.C., was sympathetic to the concerns of front-line workers: "I think health-care workers across North America … were surprised and worried about the transmission in Texas in a North American hospital with all the latest equipment," he said.
Dr. Kendall participated in a teleconference Tuesday with Gregory Taylor, Canada's chief public health officer, and other top public-health officials from across the country, aimed at ensuring Canada is prepared if an Ebola patient turns up here.
The group has been holding weekly teleconferences on Ebola since August. On Tuesday, the health officers reaffirmed their current guidelines for the types of personal protective equipment health-care workers must wear while treating Ebola patients and committed to redoubling their efforts to train nurses and others to don and doff it safely, Dr. Kendall told reporters at a news conference.
"I think that you can never be too prepared," he said. "So as a result of the call today, across the country, we're going to be putting more efforts into making quite sure that the front-line health-care workers … are confident and competent and that we know we will have those procedures in place."
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) continues to stress that the likelihood of Ebola reaching Canada is "very low," and that Ebola is neither airborne nor easy to catch.
The letter from the CFNU, an umbrella organization for Canadian nursing unions, was based in part on information provided by the Ontario Nurses' Association, which declined to reveal where the shortcomings were uncovered, except to say the province's ministry of labour had in some cases written orders telling the hospitals to shape up.
"My concern is that I do not want to highlight any area of the province that's going to put fear in our patients," said Linda Haslam-Stroud, the president of the ONA.
"We are working with those employers, the government and our joint health and safety committees to ensure that they become Ebola ready. They should be now, but they're not fully Ebola ready as we speak."
The president of the CFNU, meanwhile, said Canada has come along way since the SARS crisis in terms of its preparation for infectious diseases. Her letter called on PHAC to convene a meeting with stakeholders, including nurses, to discuss emergency preparedness.
"The good news is the Public Health Agency of Canada is reacting quickly," said Linda Silas Tuesday. "They will be calling a meeting of nurses and health-care workers to make sure we're all on the same page."