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Jason Kenney dons N95 mask while Alberta's nurses make do with less protective alternatives

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Image: Jason Kenney/Facebook

No one should fault Premier Jason Kenney too much for visiting Edmonton's Hope Mission, having a few photos taken and posting them on social media with an uplifting message about pitching in to fight COVID-19.

It's what politicians of all stripes do, and arguably it's not a terrible use of their time.

It beats sitting around scheming about ways to mess up the health-care system with dubious corporate apps or, as a Conservative predecessor of Kenney's once did, showing up drunk at a men's shelter in the wee hours and throwing change at the folks who were living there.

And Kenney's message was far from the worst one imaginable: "If you can, please contribute to homeless shelters, food banks and other groups who work with the vulnerable. They need the help now more than ever." True, and we only wish UCP policy would reflect that reality.

But wearing what appeared to be an N95 medical face mask? That was a horse of a different colour, as they say.

Because fitted N95 masks are in short supply everywhere in North America thanks to the globalized supply chain and the neoliberal policies on health care that are advocated by parties like Kenney's United Conservatives. Worried health-care workers in Alberta and throughout the world are being told they will often have to work without this piece of safety equipment when treating people who may be infected with the coronavirus.

"You are wasting precious N95 masks that are not necessary for the activities depicted in these photos," said a typically bitter comment on the premier's Facebook page. "Shame on you."

Said another: "Tell us why you are wearing an N95 mask to hand out sandwiches while you say health professionals only need to wear surgical masks?" There were plenty more like this.

Supporters of the UCP government, of course, accused the commenters of unfairly making a mountain out of a molehill -- an activity that's apparently only acceptable if the complainer is a Conservative and the molehill is a Liberal prime minister allowing voters to take selfies with him.

It wouldn't have made any difference from the perspective of Kenney's photo op or his safety if he had worn a normal surgical mask, as did some of the other mission volunteers in the pictures, although not Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney, who accompanied the premier. These do not seal as well, but they are certainly up to the task of handing over a sandwich. Moreover, they are much more plentiful.

They are also what many nurses are being told to wear in situations that really call for an N95 mask.

That's why I suspect this was more evidence of the poor value Premier Kenney gets for the big bucks he spends on his "issues management" team than any malice on his part. At worst, it showed he and his aides are remarkably out of touch with one of the key issues impacting their government during this difficult time.

If he would like to get up to speed, he could ask Tyler Shandro for a look at the letter the health minister received yesterday from Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, and Heather Smith, president of United Nurses of Alberta.

In the letter, they told Shandro that "we have repeatedly called for governments at the federal and provincial/territorial levels to adopt the precautionary principle as their standard in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet in hospitals and long-term care facilities all across Canada inconsistencies in the rules around infection prevention and control and the use of personal protective equipment still persist."

"At any other time, nurses and other workers in health care environments are entrusted with the care of patients," the letter continued. "Yet at this critical moment, when faced with a global pandemic and when we need their skills and services most, they find their professional judgment called into question and their safety potentially jeopardized, which is both offensive and dangerous."

This is in particular a reference to the circumstances in which nurses are told they cannot wear N95 masks when doing nasal swabs and other medical tests or treatments and they judge the circumstances require the more secure masks.

Nurses point to the dangerously high numbers of health-care workers who have become infected with COVID-19 in Italy, Spain and other countries as the global pandemic continues. Many of those workers have died.

"It is the position of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions that, in the event of an outbreak of any new respiratory virus, we acknowledge that the best respiratory protection for health care workers at risk is a fit-tested N95 or greater respirator," says the CFNU's position statement on COVID-19.

"Given the amount of uncertainty around COVID-19 and the current threat to health care workers across Canada," the statement continues, CFNU "recognizes the critical importance of the point-of-care risk assessment, an activity that is based on the individual nurses' professional judgment (i.e., knowledge, skills, reasoning and education)."

The letter to Shandro urges the minister: "Health care workers need your leadership at this time, Minister Shandro."

Yours too, Mr. Kenney. Yesterday's misstep gives you an opportunity to show it.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Jason Kenney/Facebook

Editor's note, March 25, 2020: This story has been updated to note that Community and Social Services Minister Rajan Sawhney​ accompanied Jason Kenney during the premier's visit to Hope Mission.

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