Working unprotected and facing psychological distress over fears of contracting COVID-19 nurses, personal support workers (PSWs), custodians and other Ontario front-line health care workers felt they were being “sacrificed” by governments, according to a new peer-reviewed study released today in London.

As noted in the recent Auditor General report, the Ontario government did not apply the “precautionary principle” to protect health care workers, the exact same error as during the SARS outbreak.

Between the beginning of November and December 4 the number of Ontario health care workers infected with COVID-19 rose by 1,929, nearly a 25 per cent increase.

Dr. James Brophy and Dr. Margaret Keith, academic researchers affiliated with the University of Windsor led the in-depth, investigative study on health care workers’ experiences in Ontario’s hospitals and long-term care homes. Pervasive throughout the extensive interviews was “the knowledge that these workers know that they are at increased risk of infection due to lack of protection which resulted in anger, frustration and a sense of violation that may have long-lasting implications,” say the researchers.

The study, Sacrificed: Ontario Health care Workers in the Time of COVID-19, comes as COVID-19 second wave lockdowns are in place in key areas of the province and the recent important admission by all levels of public health that the science shows that the Coronavirus can spread through aerosol droplet transmission, not just simple droplet as these agencies initially asserted in the pandemic’s first wave.

The research sheds light on how the systemic weaknesses in Ontario’s health system adversely impacted nurses, personal support workers (PSWs), cleaners and other front-line health care workers in COVID-19 wave one. Co-author Michael Hurley says that “the study findings lead to important recommendations:”

  • raising staffing levels in hospitals and in long term care;
  • legislated protection to allow staff to speak out about conditions at work without reprisal;
  • the urgent need to rebuild a regulatory system that has failed health care workers;
  • providing access to the protective equipment staff require to be safe;
  • greater support from management and access to mental health supports.

“The nurses, PSWs and custodians we did extensive interviews with felt they were being sacrificed by all levels of government that chose to water-down protections because of the lack of masks and other gear leaving them at greater risk of infection,” says Brophy.

Referring to the significantly worse outcomes in for-profit long-term care homes during the pandemic as an indicator of the effects of privatization, the authors said the government must revamp priorities – “away from the profit motive and toward the health and well-being of persons.”

The research was done in collaboration with the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions-Canadian Union of Public Employees (OCHU-CUPE), based on extensive interviews with 10 health care workers. The study interviews were supplemented by a OCHU-CUPE poll involving 3,000 members about their concerns regarding personal protection. About 91 per cent of those polled said they felt the government had abandoned them.

Keith noted that the predominantly female workforce, which is disproportionately racialized, operates in a toxic environment with alarming levels of physical violence, sexual harassment and verbal abuse. Compounding the problem is a hierarchical workplace culture where management marginalizes workers’ voices and threatens them with reprisals for speaking up.

“The residue for many of these female health care workers is that they feel violated and subjected to much higher risks than they should have been,” Keith says.

The researchers warn that given intrinsic links between working conditions and patient care, the ongoing stress and burnout among healthcare workers is a cause of concern for all Ontarians.

“We all need to pay attention to the pleas of health care workers during this frightening time. Not only does their wellbeing matter, we need to realize that if they are not kept safe and well, they can’t properly care for their patients and residents,” Keith says.

The authors said that although front-line workers were applauded and termed “heroes,” the systemic flaws in the health care system leave them unsupported, vulnerable, and sacrificed.

Sixteen Ontario health care workers have died.