Some essential workers in Ontario say they’ve been denied health-care services because their jobs put them at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Hinda Hassan, an ICU nurse at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener, Ont., said it happened to her during a scheduled massage therapy and chiropractic appointment last week.
She was given a COVID-19 screening questionnaire at a Waterloo, Ont., clinic that asked if she had come into contact with confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus.
Hassan checked yes and clarified that this contact was due to her job at the hospital, where she’s required to wear personal protective equipment.
She said she was told to come back after being tested for COVID-19.
The Ontario Ministry of Health released a COVID-19 patient screening guidance document in June to ensure that “all health providers are following the same screening protocol” and to “help ensure consistency when dealing with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.”
A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that the document is only for risk assessment and that it’s up to individual regulatory colleges to decide how to proceed if a patient screens positive.
Anyone who feels they have been denied service unfairly should take it up with their relevant regulatory college, the spokesperson said.
Hassan said there is no practical way for her to take time off work while she awaits a result. And, she said, it was tough news to hear given that she has put her own health and safety on the line during the pandemic.
“If you need my service, I can’t say, ‘Hey, you’re high risk. I’m sorry. I can’t take care of you.’ But then here you are — you’re denying me those rights,” she said. “It felt a little frustrating.”
Clinic apologized for denying service
The College of Massage Therapists of Ontario said someone like Hassan shouldn’t have had problems, based on the province’s current screening guidelines.
“An ICU nurse who works with COVID-19 patients (wearing appropriate personal protective equipment) should absolutely be able to receive massage therapy treatment, assuming they are not showing symptoms of COVID-19,” a spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for the College of Chiropractors of Ontario declined to comment on individual situations but said its professionals follow Ministry of Health screening guidelines.
The clinic has since called Hassan back, apologized and updated its policies. She said she’s happy it made the change, and she plans to make another appointment.
Vicky MacLean, a fellow ICU nurse in Waterloo Region, in southern Ontario, said a similar situation happened in her family.
At the beginning of June, MacLean said, she tried to book a speech therapy appointment for her toddler but was screened out because of her contact with COVID-19 patients.
MacLean said she was offered a virtual appointment, but she felt her two-year-old wouldn’t be able to focus during an online session.
After reaching out again last week, MacLean learned that the clinic had updated its screening policies based on provincial guidance, and she booked an in-person appointment.
She said she was “overwhelmed with joy” at the news but wishes she had managed to get an appointment sooner.
“We’re doing everything we can at home, but … she would be much further along if she’d had speech therapy,” MacLean said of her daughter.
Vicki McKenna, president of the Ontario Nurses’ Association, said she hasn’t heard of similar problems from other nurses. But she said she’s sorry to hear that such incidents are happening.
“Nurses, they’ve been under incredible stress over the last number of weeks, as many people have,” she said. “They deserve services as well — and certainly their families.”
‘I don’t see why my wife is punished’
It isn’t just nurses who’ve been denied service, said Bob Heans, of Fergus, Ont.
He’s a long-haul truck driver and often drives through the United States.
Heans said his wife recently made an appointment for a dental checkup, but when she mentioned his work as a long-haul driver, she was told she had to isolate from him for 14 days before she could be treated.
Heans said he doesn’t think that was fair to either of them.
“Being a truck driver, we’re probably all scared senseless for our family enough,” he said.
“I probably wash my hands 100 times a day, probably go through two bottles of hand sanitizer in like two or three days,” he said.
“I don’t see why my wife has to be punished for this because I’m a long-haul truck driver.”
Stephen Laskowski, head of the Ontario Trucking Association, said the industry has worked hard to protect drivers from COVID-19 and doesn’t think they’re at an elevated risk because they travel south of the border.
“Long-haul truck drivers spend a lot of their time alone inside their trucks. Trucks are sterilized before drivers get in, when they come out,” he said.
“We’re very proud as an industry of how proactive we’ve been.”
Laskowski said he’s heard other reports of drivers being turned away from health-care services, and that’s a concern because they need to have periodic medical exams to renew their licences.
The association is currently trying to find out how widespread the issue is, he said.
Dental college seeking clarity
Heans’s situation demonstrates a “long-standing issue” with current provincial screening guidance, said Kevin Marsh, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario.
Marsh said dentists — like massage therapists and other health-care providers — also use the province’s screening template, which includes a question about whether a patient has travelled outside of Canada in the last 14 days.
“Long-haul truck drivers who travel into the U.S.A. will always screen positive to this question. So will many pilots,” Marsh said in an email.
“As a result, their family members will always come into question, as they have close contact with someone who screens positive.”
The dental college has asked the provincial government for more clarity regarding people in these categories, but it has not yet received a response, Marsh said.
Skipping the dentist
For now, Marsh said dentists can provide emergency dental care to patients who screen positive for COVID-19, but for non-essential appointments, patients still have to either get tested or isolate for 14 days.
Heans said that means he and his wife will simply skip the dentist for the foreseeable future.
“I guess we have to,” he said.
As for Hassan, she said she’s happy with how her situation was resolved but hopes it will shed light on a situation that other essential workers may be going through. Essential workers who find themselves in a situation like hers shouldn’t be afraid to push back, she said.
“I think just have a discussion around it,” Hassan said.
“In some cases, it’s going to take some navigation, and that’s how a decision is going to be made.”