Chief medical officer accuses union of fear mongering over Northwood COVID-19 crisis

Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health and the province’s largest public sector union squared off Wednesday about conditions inside Northwood, the Halifax long-term care residence that is the epicentre of the province’s COVID-19 outbreak.

The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union claims nurses it represents have “extremely serious concerns about the health and safety of vulnerable seniors due to poor infection control and limited safety protocols at the facility.”

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, quickly rejected the charge accusing the union of baseless fear mongering.

Over the weekend, nurses were relocated from a nearby hospital’s COVID-19 unit into Northwood when the facility was overwhelmed by a spike in cases.

Eight Northwood residents have died since the weekend, accounting for two-thirds of the deaths in the province due to COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the facility reported it has 175 COVID-19 cases, made up of 132 residents and 43 staff. Twenty of the 23 new cases announced Wednesday were seniors.

Northwood criticisms

Some of the complaints from nurses include a lack of personal protective equipment, residents presumed to be infected roaming halls and no place to safely don or remove gowns.

“We want to care for these patients, but we need the equipment to be able to provide care for these patients properly. So they’re fearful for the patients’ lives,” said NSGEU president Jason MacLean.

“They’re fearful for their own safety that they’re going to contract COVID 19 and they’re also fearful for their licences because they believe their employer has them doing things that contravene practice or scope of practice within nursing.”

Strang forcefully rebutted the union at the province’s daily COVID-19 briefing, quoting an infectious disease doctor on-site at Northwood who described the claims as having “no validity.”

Jason MacLean is the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Strang accused the union of spreading fear.

“They are frankly using fear, fear mongering and hyperbole in terms of the way they’re describing this situation,” he said.

“When we talk to front-line people who are in Northwood, what the NSGEU were saying is actually inaccurate.

“So I challenge the NSGEU — do not scare people unnecessarily. They are creating fear and anxiety where it’s not necessary and that’s inappropriate.”

Strang urged the union to work with health officials to resolve issues. The union says it has done that.

Northwood response

Northwood issued its own statement that did not rebut the union’s claims.

“We greatly appreciate the concerns of the NSGEU for their members who have been assigned to work at Northwood,” the facility said. “The health and safety of anyone working at Northwood is paramount.”

Nova Scotia chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang at the April 22, 2020, COVID-19 briefing. (CBC)

Northwood said it was doing everything it could to ensure all staff have access to adequate personal protective equipment. 

It said infection control measures are being followed and that Northwood is “creating conditions that maximize the safety of our residents.”

Union pushes back again

The union defended itself after Strang pushed back, saying it was merely passing on what it was hearing from nurses working at the long-term care facility.

“It’s evident that the Department of Health and Wellness is out of touch with what is truly happening on the ground at Northwood Manor, and that is scary,” MacLean said in a statement to CBC News.

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