Front-line health-care workers in Alberta say they are scared that the protocols and equipment in place to protect them from contracting Ebola don’t go far enough.
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So far, five patients in Alberta have presented with symptoms and a travel history that could have indicated Ebola exposure. However, the virus has been ruled out in each case.
On Wednesday afternoon, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. James Talbot told the media the province is well-prepared to deal with any patients who may be infected with Ebola.
But CBC News spoke with one health-care worker who treated a potential Ebola patient who said staff are lacking basic protective gear that could prevent the spread of the virus.
“I think we are very good at screening our patients and identifying them. But to be able to walk into a room with one of these patients and feel that you have the full protection gear is not where things are at currently,” said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
‘You’re playing a deadly game. You don’t know what I have, I don’t know what you have.’– Brent Olynyk, trauma scene safety worker
“We have gloves, we have masks, we have shields. But if you start from the bottom of your feet, we don’t have the appropriate foot and leg coverings for these initial treatments. And you can work your way from there.”
The worker said the gowns and foot coverings AHS has provided are permeable and do not offer full coverage, leaving them exposed to patients’ bodily fluids.
“If you’re in close contact with these patients, where you can get sweat on you or spit on you, or vomit or blood – all these things are infectious.”
Protective gear not enough, says expert
While the health-care worker says the personal protective gear in place is standard issue to deal with common infectious illnesses, “Ebola is a different bug,” he said.
“It has different characteristics and those are the things that I don’t think we’re prepared for at this point in time – not to the point that other places are prepared.”
He said health-care workers should have a large, single-piece bodysuit complete with full and impermeable foot coverings to ensure protection – something Brent Olynyk, a 12-year-veteran in trauma scene safety, agrees with.
Asked how he would outfit himself if dealing with a patient presenting Ebola-like symptoms, Olynyk said “I would treat it at pretty much the highest level that we have.”
That would include a durable full-body suit capable of fully protecting the wearer’s personal clothing from bodily fluids, double- or triple-gloved hands and a full face respirator. A standard full-body fluid-proof suit would cost about $20, he said.
“Hospitals don’t do that. They put on gloves and that’s it,” said Olynyk.
“Knowing what I know, and I’ve been in hospitals … you’re playing a deadly game,” said Olynyk. “You don’t know what I have, I don’t know what you have.”
Staff say training is lacking
The same health-care worker told CBC News he also has serious concerns about the lack of training he has received in how to deal with patients with Ebola-like symptoms.
‘My comparison would be the police officer who probably will never have to pull out their gun during their career, but the likelihood is there.’– Frontline heath-care worker
“At the end of the day, the chance of taking care of a true Ebola patient is extremely, extremely low. However, the chance of assessing a potential one is not,” he said.
“My comparison would be the police officer who probably will never have to pull out their gun during their career, but the likelihood is there.”
“So the question is: should we train them? Should they learn how to shoot their gun and shoot it in practice – or should they just watch a video knowing that they will probably never actually have to do it?” he asked.
Earlier Wednesday, the province’s top doctor said Ebola preparations, including staff training, have been underway since August.
However, one senior ER doctor who likewise asked not be named says this is not the case.
“We haven’t had any training on how to prevent this thing. Almost every single presentation that’s a potential Ebola case has been a complete disaster.”
“As a physician I’m concerned,” he said.
The doctor said medical staff in Toronto have access to training videos and online tutorials, but says no similar training program is in effect in Edmonton. Instead, he said AHS has been faxing out memos.
Frustrated with the lack of clear information, he said doctors at one Edmonton hospital took it upon themselves to call in an infectious disease expert for tips on best practices.
“If I’m finding out about this as a practicing physician at somebody else’s meeting, I find the whole thing ridiculous. And quite frankly it’s unprofessional by AHS.”
“We are the front line of Ebola care,” he said. “This should be a priority.”
‘People are scared,’ says ER doctor
“People are obviously incredibly scared,” said the ER doctor.
“We all have families, we have friends. We don’t want to be quarantined, we don’t want to be infecting anybody. We don’t want our patients to be contaminated. It’s a huge issue.”
“What would allay their fears? The availability of stocked rooms to glove and gown, to take the PPE [personal protection equipment] on and off. Training, videos, you know, real vigilance on this issue.”
During his Wednesday afternoon address, Dr. Talbot with the province said impermeable gowns were made available to health-care workers four weeks ago. But neither worker CBC News spoke with said they have seen the new suits or received training on how to use them.
Talbot also said the province and Alberta Health Services are continually working with hospital staff to develop safety protocols that will protect them, their patients and their families.
Counselling is available to staff who are scared, he added.
So far, training efforts have prioritized departments where the chances of treating an Ebola patient are highest, he said.
“Anything that is required to improve the safety of the people in Alberta – patients, staff – we will do.”
As a precaution, four hospitals in Alberta have been set up to deal with patients diagnosed with Ebola: the University of Alberta Hospital and Stollery Hospital in Edmonton and The Alberta Children’s Hospital and South Health Campus in Calgary.