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March 11, 2021

One year in: The lessons from COVID-19 mustn't fall by the wayside

Media Release
Occupational Health & Safety

March 11, 2021 (OTTAWA, ON) – On the one-year anniversary of the WHO’s pandemic declaration, Canada’s nurses are renewing their call for better pandemic preparedness. As a result of governments not heeding the lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak, Canada’s health care workers contracted COVID-19 at twice the global average during the first wave.

“Canada had a chance, following SARS, to really be prepared for the next pandemic and it blew it,” said Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions President Linda Silas. “Without the proper PPE, without the proper guidance, dozens of health care workers lost their lives, tens of thousands contracted the disease and countless more are reeling from the mental health impacts that come from being on the front lines of this global pandemic.”

In the early days of the pandemic, the CFNU had advocated for a precautionary approach to Canada’s pandemic response: to err on the side of caution when protecting health care workers. This meant all health care workers should take reasonable actions to reduce risk, including wearing N95 respirators, until there was scientific consensus on how the virus was transmitted.

Last fall, the CFNU released an independent report on Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, authored by Mario Possamai, a former senior advisor to the SARS commission. To adequately protect health care workers, the report argued, the precautionary principle must become a guiding principle of occupational health and safety protocols.

To address the PPE shortage that imperiled so many health care workers throughout the pandemic, Possamai recommended that governments maintain sufficient stockpiles and develop a domestic supply chain. In addition, the federal government should create an occupational safety research agency, modelled after the United States’ National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, with legislated authority to make decisions on worker safety.

“Because we had a PPE shortage, health care workers had to run towards the pandemic without the proper protection, putting their lives – and their families’ lives – in danger,” explained Silas.

“We can never forget that – and it should never happen again.”

The CFNU is also calling on provincial governments to adopt presumptive legislation, which would automatically accept health care workers’ claims of contracting COVID-19 on the job, without requiring evidence that it resulted from a workplace exposure.

The number of infections among Canada’s health care workers has continued to grow, tripling since July 2020.

According to the Canadian Institute of Health Information, over 65,000 health care workers in Canada have contracted COVID-19 to date. The CFNU estimates that 43 health care workers lost their lives to the disease.

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The CFNU is Canada’s largest nurses’ organization, representing nearly 200,000 nurses and student nurses, and advocating on key health priorities and federal engagement in public health care.

For more information, please contact:
Ben René,, 613-406-5962