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OPSEU/SEFPO President to McMaster University President: Irresponsible research study must be abandoned

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After learning of an irresponsible research study being conducted by McMaster University, “Medical Masks Versus N95 Respirators to Prevent COVID-19 in Healthcare Workers”, OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas has written to McMaster University President, Dr. David Farrar, demanding that this research project must end.

“We don’t need a study that plays with the lives of our members by keeping them inadequately protected so we can see how many of them get COVID-19. We must instead prevent exposures of COVID-19 by utilizing PPE that is known to be effective,” stated Thomas. “To be honest, we question why your institution’s Research Ethics Board would even approve such a study, especially given the emerging research about COVID-19, and the lessons we should have learned from SARS. It’s unethical to place workers at such risk even if participation is voluntary.”

Read below for the full text of the letter:

December 17, 2020

Dr. David Farrar
President & Vice-Chancellor
McMaster University
Gilmour Hall, Room 238
1280 Main St W
Hamilton, ON, L8S 4L8
president@mcmaster.ca

Re: Research study “Medical Masks Versus N95 Respirators to Prevent COVID-19 in Healthcare Workers”

Dear Dr. Farrar:

We are writing to express our grave concerns about a COVID-19 research project being conducted by McMaster University in which our members are effectively being asked to risk their health to prove something that is obvious.  This is wrongheaded and completely unacceptable!

Hospital Professionals who are members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union / Le Syndicat des employés de la fonction publique de l’Ontario (OPSEU/SEFPO) have learned that the study will involve a number of Ontario hospitals where our members work. According to the study website Medical Masks vs N95 Respirators for COVID-19 – Full Text View – ClinicalTrials.gov, researchers will examine the effectiveness of N95 respirators vs surgical masks for health care workers who are providing care in this pandemic.

OPSEU/SEFPO represents over 24,000 regulated and non-regulated paramedical professionals in 90 bargaining units in public hospitals and healthcare facilities across Ontario. Our members work on the front lines of this pandemic and put themselves at risk every day. We are into the second wave of this pandemic, but both our members and other health care workers still haven’t received the full protection they need.

Directive #5 governs personal protective equipment (PPE) use for workers in hospitals and long-term care. According to Directive #5, N95s are required in hospitals only when performing aerosol-generating procedures (AGP) or after a regulated worker’s point of care risk assessment (PCRA) deems a N95 is needed. OPSEU’s non-regulated healthcare professionals are forced to rely on decisions made by others.

The rules of Directive #5, or the “status quo” were reached primarily due to a shortage of N95s. They did not take into account what would be adequate in the circumstances given that the science about transmission was conflicted and evolving.

On November 4, 2020, the Public Health Agency of Canada acknowledged that COVID-19 is airborne. COVID-19 can be spread by talking, coughing, and singing.

OPSEU/SEFPO believes that all healthcare workers (regulated or otherwise) should be using N95s for all care of actual or suspected COVID-19 cases. It is shameful that hospitals and other facilities still restrict N95 use for AGPs or PCRA results. We do not need to study the status quo compared to the higher protection of N95s. We must give all healthcare workers respiratory protection (such as N95s or elastomeric respirators) and move on.

In SARS, healthcare workers wore N95s. When the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis raged in West Africa and the US and Canada were preparing for the threat, facilities such as Atlanta’s Emory Medicine Serious Communicable Diseases Unit planned to use powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs). Why should we handle PPE in the COVID-19 pandemic any differently? Our workers are not disposable and should not be treated as such!

Thousands of front-line health care heroes continue to become infected by COVID-19 across Canada and many have already died. On January 20, 2020, China introduced airborne precautions and flattened its COVID-19 curve. Workers need respirators now.

We don’t need a study that plays with the lives of our members by keeping them inadequately protected so we can see how many of them get COVID-19. We must instead prevent exposures of COVID-19 by utilizing PPE that is known to be effective. To be honest, we question why your institution’s Research Ethics Board would even approve such a study, especially given the emerging research about COVID-19, and the lessons we should have learned from SARS. It’s unethical to place workers at such risk even if participation is voluntary.

McMaster University must abandon this research project and immediately stop approaching our members to take part in this irresponsible study.

In solidarity,

Warren (Smokey) Thomas
OPSEU/SEFPO President