COVID in Canada: From a Canadian Nurses' Perspective

By Haleigh Gorrell

June 10, 2020

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COVID in Canada

The recent COVID-19 global pandemic has been absolutely devastating for all of us. Nurses are out on the front lines facing the virus head-on and doing the best they can with what they have to defeat it. We are forever going to remember this stressful time in our health care systems and ultimately we are going to learn from it to avoid such a blow again in the future. As a Canadian nurse, I can’t help but compare the response to the pandemic between Canada and the United States. This is not a post to say that my country is better than yours, not at all. It is simply written to be an eye-opening comparison between each location in order to educate others on how Canada has been dealing with it and what Canadian nurses have faced in the process.

Positive Cases

As I write this article, there have been about 86,000 positive cases in Canada and about 6500 deaths thus far (CDC). In comparison, America has 1.69 million positive cases with almost 100,000 deaths (CDC). The number of deaths in New York City alone is 10,000 more than the entire country of Canada. These numbers are strikingly different, but so is the population difference. The population of Canada is much less than the United States…37.59 million compared to 328.2 million in the US. We only have two major city centers that could even come close to New York City…Vancouver and Toronto. The population density of NYC is double that of Vancouver which is Canada’s most-crowded city…it’s no rival.

The differences

So why does the US have so many more cases per capita? I’m no expert, but just from simple observation by watching the news and keeping up to date with articles from both countries, there are a few differences that I have noticed. It seemed that Canada took the pandemic seriously much sooner than the US…our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was promoting social distancing and implementing guidelines earlier than Donald Trump was in the United States. I read that tracking data which Google collected from smartphones showed that Canadians indeed practiced more social distancing than Americans and that they began distancing earlier. Our health care systems are vastly different (as I previously wrote about in another article).

While Canada has some gaps in our healthcare system, it seems that there are more persistent gaps in the US such as simple access to care, for those who lack medical insurance. We don’t have this issue in Canada so people may have been treated earlier because of this. Near the beginning of the virus invading North America, Trump said “It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.” I truly wish that had been the case.

Testing

Canada also began testing sooner than the United States. In the beginning, we already had multiple testing centers across the country while all of the tests in the US were being sent to the CDC in Atlanta, Georgia. Canada had broader criteria for being tested for COVID than the States did. Trump stated that it was unnecessary to test everyone and even nurses who had come into contact with COVID patients were denied testing. It seems the testing has increased now but what if Americans were able to be tested much sooner? I recently read an article published by the New York Times entitled “The Lost Month: How a Failure to Test Blinded the U.S. to Covid-19”; it’s super informative about the testing issues that America faced. There’s one powerful quote that I’ll include…

The result was a lost month, when the world’s richest country — armed with some of the most highly trained scientists and infectious disease specialists — squandered its best chance of containing the virus’s spread. Instead, Americans were left largely blind to the scale of a looming public health catastrophe” (New York Times). 

Canadian Healthcare

Something to keep in mind is that Canada has not always been this organized and orderly when it comes to pandemic outbreaks. If you remember 2003 when we had the SARS outbreak, Toronto in particular was hit very hard. It exposed a lot of faults in our system and our public health agency has been well prepared for an influenza pandemic ever since. Obviously, no country is perfect when facing this deadly disease but I do feel that because of past failures, Canada has grown from that and bettered the system for this.

Another factor to consider is that Canada has only 13 provinces and territories, compared to 52 states to the South. 52 states are a lot of moving parts when federally implementing guidelines and procedures. Canada has been able to work together quite well on both a federal and provincial level. If the United States had been able to test more, track the disease’s early movements, and identify hot spots sooner, quarantines may have been able to confine the disease more rapidly.

PPE

Another large issue widely spread by the media was the lack of PPE that health care providers encountered. Canadian health care facilities were short but not nearly as short as the US. Trudeau made it very clear in his daily social distanced press conferences from his home that the Canadian government was scrambling to order millions of dollars of PPE supplies for the country. I interviewed a few nurses across Canada who have been working directly with COVID patients and none of them felt unsafe when it came to a lack of PPE. None of them were ever asked to re-use an N95 mask although the hospitals did save the masks to sterilize in the future to use again. That is absolutely not the case when it comes to American nurses. 

COVID units in Canada

The Canadian nurses I interviewed had a lot of valuable information for us to understand what it has been like to work in a COVID unit in a Canadian hospital. There was initially a large fear of the unknown which is completely relatable. There is a general consensus that we are all learning more as we care for these patients and as time goes on we are gaining more confidence for caring for this specific patient population. It’s frustrating that the policies change every hour it seems, but we also understand why that is the case.

Most nurses in Canada feel supported by their hospitals and the doctors they are working alongside but feel the most support from their fellow co-workers. Someone mentioned that there seems to be a lack of transparency from the upper management of their hospital… “often having to fight for answers or PPE and often take things into [their] own hands so that [they] can stay safe”. They feel more supported on a federal level than a provincial one; for example, the premier of Ontario promised all front-line workers an extra $4 per hour but employees have yet to see any pandemic pay. One nurse stated “I am very glad and feel extremely lucky that I am in Canada practicing as an ICU RN. I cannot imagine working in the heart of New York…Their news is horrifying and the government/hospital’s lack of PPE support for frontline [workers is] appalling.”

Learn from this

I have been paying close attention to the nurses I follow on social media who have taken crisis contracts in NYC (and everywhere else) and I have SO much respect for them. If they didn’t risk their safety for all of us, who would? As the case numbers and deaths begin to decrease across North America, I think we should be very proud of all the work that we have done to fight this virus, no matter what country you are from.

As states and provinces begin to open up again, it’s crucial that we all remain strong and continue to distance ourselves to avoid a second wave. We need to keep the feeling of urgency and protect ourselves and everyone else. I genuinely hope, as both a continent and as our respective countries, that we will learn from this pandemic and allow it to prepare us for anything in the future. I know that it will create stronger gypsy nurses who are ready to combat anything.

This article voices the thoughts and opinions of the author and does not represent any particular view of The Gypsy Nurse.

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