‘Downright ugly’: Pandemic increases need, challenges for health-care security in B.C.

Those tasked with protecting B.C.'s frontline healthcare workers saying the pandemic has them dealing with more challenging interactions than ever before, thanks in part to people who oppose COVID restrictions -- and aren't afraid to show it.

As the pandemic drags on and frustrations over COVID-19 restrictions mount, those tasked with protecting B.C.’s frontlines say they’re dealing with more challenging interactions than ever before.

“I’ve never seen it anywhere in my career,” says Tony York, executive vice president for Paladin Security, which is hired by most of B.C.’s health-care authorities. “And this is year 30 for me inside of serving health-care security.”

From “ugly” verbal harassment and direct threats, to keyed cars and protests, York says he and his security teams are dealing with a lot more people who are expressing their displeasures with COVID-19 measures, like mask and vaccine mandates.

“Health care for so many years was a very open access environment and today you’re seeing folks as they’re coming and going, being greeted at the very front entrance and being asked to show and express compliance with some expectations that the health-care facilities have,” York tells CityNews.

“But this has brought up a whole new world of folks that are – I’ll refer to them as anti-establishment – people who are just not happy with being mandated to do anything, especially if the government is the one telling us we’re forced to do it.”

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Currently, being fully vaccinated is required to access a number of settings in B.C. That includes visitors who want to enter an acute care facility.

“People are expressing their displeasures in some of the most unkind ways and it’s not because they’re being asked to do something that points them out differently. It’s just because they’re being held to the same standard as all of us are being held to,” York says, adding a security officer working screening likely experiences a negative interaction numerous times in a shift.

“It’s not just, ‘oh, you’re a little grumbly’, which is what we used to experience. Now it’s something that folks are just being – they’re just downright ugly. I don’t know any other better term to say that and still be polite about it.”

One security officer, who spoke to CityNews on condition of anonymity, shared an interaction he recently dealt with at a Metro Vancouver hospital when a COVID-positive patient visited.

“He was basically harassing nurses, yelling at them. He’s calling the security guards, officials, slurs. He’s trying to spit at us, he’s trying to bite us as well. And all the nurses were trying to do was get a blood sample from him so they can treat him,” the security officer says.

Mental health, substance abuse supports lacking

But it’s not just people opposed to COVID measures, creating additional challenges.

They are also coming from the lack of mental health and substance abuse supports, which has only exacerbated throughout the pandemic.

“A lot of mental-health-related concerns, a lot of substance abuse that just happens in our communities and these folks need help and they’re obviously coming inside of health care to go get that help and they’re not always in control of themselves or their faculties, putting a challenge for many of us that are serving the health-care environment unlike anytime in our past,” York adds.

“The good news is we’re getting the folks help that they need. The hard part of it is … the volume, I think, is outpacing any projections any of us had, when we’re thinking about the resources that we originally needed to keep these environments safe.”

Jonny Morris, CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association in B.C., says the growing demand for mental health and substance abuse supports and services is unprecedented.

“It’s been well documented throughout the pandemic that everything that’s happening in the world is having an impact upon our mental health, including people who live with, perhaps, moderate mental health and substance use challenges that have worsened, and also folks who live with severe and persistent mental illness, who perhaps have had symptoms worsen,” he tells CityNews.

“Often, when someone is in crisis, there are very few options and the emergency department is a main space where people go and seek emergency care for mental health concerns.”

Morris says throughout the pandemic, the CMHA in B.C. alone has seen double-digit increases in the number of people accessing its services.

Both Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health say their security teams have noticed an increase in the “number of challenging interactions taking place at many of our sites.”

“As it has been for all health-care workers, COVID-19 continues to be a challenging time for our security teams who work in our various facilities,” says a joint statement from both health authorities.

“Due to the requirements of some of our COVID Testing and Immunization Centres and acute sites, we have had to significantly increase our security resources to support staff, patients, and the public at these locations.”

Nurses say they have also noticed an increase in the amount — and severity — of violence in health-care facilities.

“We have seen that nurses are having to call more and more for help,” Aman Grewal, president of the BC Nurses’ Union, tells CityNews. “It’s impacting the mental and physical wellbeing of our members. They should not have to go to work and be afraid that they may be assaulted.”

She adds a challenge at some facilities, especially rural ones, is that nurses don’t always have access to security. When they do, she says often only security guards — not security officers — are available.

“In terms of the guards, they are more stationary, they have a post, etc. They may respond to an incident but they are basically more there to make sure that other people don’t get into the situation. They do not interact with that individual, they do not go hands on. They do not try to restrain or assist the nurse in restraining that person,” Grewal says.

“That is something that we have been advocating for, through the union, is to have security officers, who are able be hands-on, present in our health-care facilities.”

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