Health care workers critically ill

Canadian Press and Globe and Mail Update

June 30, 2003

The death Sunday of an Ontario nurse — the first health care worker in Canada to succumb to SARS — makes clear the need to better protect front-line workers, a nurses' union said Monday.

"This unfortunate event underscores the very urgent need to ensure that all front-line health care workers who provide direct patient care are fully protected at all times," said a statement from Lesley Bell, executive officer of the Ontario Nurses' Association.

The union is asking the Ontario Ministry of Labour to intensify its investigation of Toronto-area hospitals to ensure they are complying with regulations on protecting employees from severe acute respiratory syndrome, especially in making sure masks fit properly.

"Research has shown a direct link to improperly-fitted masks and the spread of SARS, and unfortunately our experience has borne this out," Ms. Bell said in a statement.

"We cannot afford to let down our guard in light of this deadly disease," Ms. Bell said.

Another member of the SARS containment team warned that the 51-year-old nurse may not be the last health care worker in the province to die from the disease.

"I know of at least three or four other health-care workers in the city who are still critically ill on ventilators. And it wouldn't surprise me if there was another death among this group as well," said Dr. Andrew Simor, chief microbiologist at Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre.

Officials at North York General Hospital, where the nurse died, say the woman had the disease for quite a while.

The 51-year-old woman is the 39th person and first health-care worker in the Greater Toronto Area to die from SARS.

North York General was the epicentre of the latest SARS outbreak. The disease festered there for weeks unnoticed before public health officials discovered it on May 23.

The disease is having a major psychological impact on the health-care workers who have fought it, said Dr. Donald Low, chief of microbiology at Mount Sinai Hospital. And the death will only add to the trauma, he said.

"It's one thing to hear that a colleague has become ill," Dr. Low said from New York, where he was giving an address on SARS on Monday. "It's a much different thing to hear that a colleague has died doing the same thing you are doing."

As of Monday, the government reported 22 active probable SARS cases in Toronto. Eleven of those were listed as critical. Another two cases were listed as suspect.