As businesses across many industries grapple with staffing shortages due to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19, the City of Edmonton said it too is concerned about the potential impact the fifth wave will have on its workforce.
Because of increasing COVID-19 cases among its employees, the city said Tuesday it is making minor adjustments to all departments so it can continue to deliver priority services.
There have not been any service disruptions yet, according to the city, but they will be considered should Omicron cases cause shortages among the workforce.
As of Tuesday, there were about 200 active cases of COVID-19 in city employees. The city recognized those numbers are expected to change by the day.
The city specifically pointed to cases at Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, where about 51 of the 1,100 firefighters are currently off work due to COVID-19. That number represents about 4.5 per cent of the total number of firefighters in Edmonton.
The city said EFRS continues to move people around and supplement shifts to ensure the fire department is properly staffed.
“Protecting Edmontonians from fire is a vital service to this city,” the city stated in a news release.
“The City of Edmonton has a robust continuity process for assessing, evaluating and adjusting work to deliver priority services, such as snow and ice control, transit, recreation centres, waste services and emergency services, in times of disruption.”
In an update Wednesday afternoon, EFRS fire chief Joe Zatylny said 53 frontline firefighters were off due to COVID-19 — about 4.8 per cent of the force.
EFRS is currently listed on the province’s COVID-19 outbreak list.
“There are four fire stations that met the criteria of being declared a COVID-19 outbreak station location, each experiencing 10 or more consecutive cases,” Zatylny said, adding the stations were scattered throughout the city.
“The stations that were impacted, we were able to decontaminate them, re-staff them so that there was no service disruptions.”
Zatylny said the service is currently backfilling shifts with off-duty firefighters, as well as redeploying members from non-emergent and training duties back onto the frontlines.
Additional measures have been taken within fire stations, such as increased social distancing, enhanced cleaning and sanitization, as well as strict protocols when it comes to preparing and cooking meals.
“What we’re seeing here — and this is part of the concern — is that when we start losing large amounts of staff, how long can we sustain that? And that’s something that we’re watching very closely and making sure that we’re looking at all of the data, making sure that we don’t want to burn out our staff coming in on their off time to make sure that we can continue to provide service to Edmontonians and maintain the safety to them, as well as our staff,” he said.
“I want to provide that reassurance to all Edmontonians that we will continue to standby, answer their calls in the times of need.”
Greg Rehman, president of the Edmonton Firefighters Union, said he’s concerned about the increasing number of members who are off, but not surprised given the number of cases in the community right now.
“Our members being on the frontline, we don’t have the ability to work from home… we are at work every day,” he said. “Our number one priority is making sure our members are healthy and safe in order to provide a safe and effective service to the citizens.
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“We do have contingency plans in place when those numbers do decrease. Right now, that’s being filled with overtime.”
The Edmonton Police Service said that as of Wednesday morning, 194 employees were away due to illness or isolation. Of those, 100 have tested positive for COVID-19: 77 sworn members, 22 civilians and one contractor.
The EPS said 113 employees are set to return to work over the next week, as long as their illnesses aren’t prolonged.
“Our increased isolations have challenged our organization, but we are continuing to assess and adjust our staffing as required to maintain frontline service delivery,” the EPS said in a statement.
“The EPS COVID-19 safety protocols continue to be assessed in accordance with the provincial government COVID-19 health restrictions and health advice. With the rise of positive cases in Alberta, the EPS continues to reinforce and evolve its duty protocols for the safety of EPS employees and the public to mitigate COVID-19 impacts on our employees and our service delivery.
“We truly appreciate the hard work of all our employees as we navigate through this new wave of challenges.”
The city is reviewing service operations in light of the staffing shortages. If changes to services are needed, the city said Edmontonians will be notified as soon as possible.
Earlier this week, isolation requirements changed for fully vaccinated Albertans.
As of Jan. 3, fully vaccinated people who test positive for COVID-19 are only required to isolate for five days from the onset of symptoms — shortened from the previous 10-day isolation period.
However, if the person’s symptoms are not gone after five days, they must continue to isolation until they resolve.
Once the person exits isolation, they must continue to wear a mask at all times when outside their home for an additional five days.
Unvaccinated Albertans are still required to isolate for 10 days.
Health Minister Jason Copping announced the change last week in the face of the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, saying it was based on evidence that fully immunized people have shorter infectious periods.
Copping said it will prevent disruptions in the workforce, especially for those who deliver important services.
He said discretionary exceptions could be made for workers whose absence causes “significant public health impact.” In those instances, additional health measures would be put into place, Copping said.
The City of Edmonton said there are currently no essential workers it is allowing to return to work before their isolation period is over, even though provincial rules permit that to happen.
“We will reevaluate that decision if and when it may be needed,” the city said.
Alberta’s active COVID-19 case rate soared over the weekend. As of Tuesday, there were 34,276 reported active cases in the province, although health officials have said the actual number is much higher due to a change in testing protocols.
Albertans who come down with symptoms are now asked to take a rapid antigen test at home. If the result is positive, they must isolate. However, they are not required to report that positive test to Alberta Health.
Edmonton itself had 9,166 reported active cases as of Tuesday afternoon, although again, health officials have said the reported active case count is only the “tip of the iceberg.”