Nurses in Quebec say the province needs to work faster to get them the protective equipment they must have to treat COVID-19 patients and those suspected of being infected.
Despite assurances from Premier François Legault that health professionals will have the equipment they need to do their jobs safely, front-line nurses say they are running out of that basic gear.
"Whatever the problem is, we need to save our patients, right here, right now," said one nurse, who works at the Montreal General Hospital.
"It's not tomorrow or after tomorrow. We need to protect ourselves."
The nurse, who spoke to CBC on the condition of anonymity, said the hospital ran out of certain sizes of N95 masks this week, and at one point, it had no protective face shields left.
To protect their eyes, she said, nurses on her unit wore goggles instead of face shields.
N95 masks come in different sizes and have to fit tightly on the face to work properly. Without a properly fitted mask, a nurse must refrain from treating a COVID-19 patient.
"They are not forcing us to go into a room if our size is not available. We have not gotten to that point, luckily," she said.
The nurse said she and her colleagues are feeling anxious, frustrated and worried. They remain focused on patient care, she said, but still, they are stressed out and scared they may be exposed.
"It needs to be fixed right away because we are putting our lives at risk," she said.
N95 masks under lock and key: FIQ
That nurse's account of serious supply issues at the MUHC is corroborated by an internal email obtained by CBC.
In the email, dated March 25, nurses in one MUHC unit were told by a nursing manager about equipment challenges — specifically, periodic shortages of face shields and certain sizes of N95 masks.
The manager explains that the MUHC is making improvements to the supply chain so more stock is available but asks the nurses to remain vigilant about usage.
Denyse Joseph, vice-president of the Quebec federation of nurses (FIQ), said there simply isn't enough equipment to protect staff right now.
"If I am a front-line employee and I get contaminated, how many people am I going to contaminate?" she asked.
For example, Joseph said, nurses working in the emergency ward need to be completely outfitted to treat trauma patients.
But she said there are situations where the masks and face shields are locked up and not easy to get at.
"In an emergency situation, you don't have time to run around a unit and find who has the key for the equipment," she said. "You need to have the equipment right on hand, right away. You need to protect yourself."
Annie-Claire Fournier, a spokesperson for the MUHC, said in an email that the hospital network is co-ordinating its efforts on a daily basis with regional health authorities and other Montreal hospitals so it can provide staff with the equipment they need.
"This is a priority for us, and the current inventory meets our needs and is monitored on a daily basis," wrote Fournier.
At their daily briefing Thursday, both the premier and Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, said they understand health care workers are worried and want to be extra safe.
Arruda said there are enough masks for staff who need them, but they do have to be stored carefully and only used by workers who are in real danger of contracting the virus.
"There is a strict management of that because we don't want to be in a situation that in three days [where] there are no more masks," said Arruda.
If there is a case where workers cannot get the equipment they need, he said, he wants his department to be notified.
Supplies running low at JGH
At the Jewish General Hospital (JGH), one of the designated COVID-19 treatment centres in Montreal, a senior administrator acknowledged the hospital's inventory of protective equipment is very low this week.
The Health Ministry is expecting large shipments in the next few days, said Francine Dupuis, associate CEO of the CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, which oversees the JGH.
She said the situation should be back to normal as of next week.
She said front-line workers at the Jewish General Hospital are not impacted by that shortage, because the hospital is given priority.
"They are always protected," said Dupuis.
She has not heard about face shields or mask sizes running out there.
"We are not there yet, but if we don't get more in the next few days, we will be there," Dupuis said. "Without equipment, we are done. We can't give any care."