Extendicare Parkside is home to Saskatchewan’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreak that infected more than 200 people and killed around 40 residents.
The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) stepped in to help manage the care home in mid-December, after the outbreak was declared in late November 2020.
Regina firefighters were called in for support and dozens of SHA staff were redeployed to the facility.
“It was frightening quite frankly,” said SEIU-West president Barbara Cape, the union head that represents Extendicare Parkside workers.
The provincial government issued a tender on Tuesday, stating “challenges have arisen with the Personal Care Home (PCH) sector in Saskatchewan as a result of COVID-19, particularly related to staffing when the PCH is in outbreak.”
The Ministry of Health is looking to “secure an emergency response staffing team” that could be deployed throughout the province on short notice.
However, 62 per cent of personal care homes in the province are located in Regina and Saskatoon.
“It is proactive preparation,” said Premier Scott Moe, who toured a mass vaccination centre in Regina on Thursday.
“We do need our resources in these vaccination centres, but we want to ensure we are prepared should be have a challenge somewhere else in our healthcare system like a long-term care centre.”
Health Minister Paul Merriman says this emergency response team will help free up SHA staff who have been backfilling these types of positions in care homes.
“This is all hands on deck and we’re really pulling on everybody to be able to do this,” Merriman said, adding the province is reaching out to post-secondary students and retired health care workers for help.
According to the health ministry, personal care homes are private businesses and do not have access to the SHA’s labour pool.
In a statement to Global News, the ministry said, “During a COVID-19 outbreak, there have been instances where many of a personal care homes’ care aides were deemed close contacts and required to isolate. This has left the home with fewer staff to care for the residents.”
The tender is largely looking for care aides, a position that is usually kept to cohorts, according to the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN).
SUN president Tracy Zambory says there could be concerns with deploying care aides across the province.
“Now that we have COVID-19 variants we really have to be very careful on how we approach this.”
Tender aside, Zambory says this begs a larger conversation when it comes to staffing shortages.
“We were in a crisis prior to COVID and COVID has only made that exponentially worse. Now we’re looking at trying to roll out a vaccination program,” she said.
According to Zambory, staffing issues could become “unmanageable” if the province doesn’t consider temporarily reducing health care services.
The SEIU-West president echoes Zambory’s staffing shortage concerns.
“The problem we have with short staffing at Extendicare is a matter of daily operations and daily business,” Cape said.
“In health care, whether it’s private or public, we need to staff like we give a damn about the people we care about and we need to start there.”
Read more: COVID-19 outbreaks in Saskatchewan
According to Cape, the tender shows that the province does not understand that long-term care, acute care and home care all work together. She says designating an outbreak support team won’t address the root of the problem.
“You’re dealing with human beings with complex issues. You can’t just parachute someone in and expect them to be able to provide care,” she said.
According to the health ministry, there are more than 250 licensed personal care homes in Saskatchewan that care for close to 5,000 residents.
In the last two weeks, 14 COVID-19 outbreaks were declared in long-term care and personal care homes across the province.