The union of Alberta nurses is expressing concerns about the Alberta government’s plans to lift a health order that has prevented health care workers from working at more than one continuing care facility.
Continuing care centres are home to some of Alberta’s most vulnerable people when it comes to COVID-19.
In April of 2020, the province announced workers would be limited to one site to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading, but now the province intends to lift that restriction by Feb. 16.
“The primary thing we learned from SARS is that having health care workers working at more than one site only increases the chance of transmission. Now that we are moving into a wave where this variant is incredibly transmissible, this seems to be the very worst time to try to eliminate the order,” said David Harrigan, the director of labour relations with the United Nurses of Alberta.
UNA, along with other unions and employers were consulted by the province about lifting the one-site rule in November.
Harrigan said at the time the union thought mid-February looked reasonable, but he said Omicron changed that.
Harrigan said the nurses union sent an email to the province last week expressing concerns with lifting the order, but on Wednesday the union received an email on behalf of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, stating that “because of staffing challenges in continuing care, operators are signaling the need to consider lifting all or some the restrictions potentially sooner than February 16, 2022 in order to access staff to fill gaps created by omicron related absences and enable the onsite re-orientation of staff that will be returning to their work site(s) after a near two year absence,”
But Harrigan thinks it makes more sense to attract more workers to jobs in continuing care facilities.
“This industry needs to do what every other industry does. When you can’t attract staff you increase the compensation, but instead of doing that they are making an order to say let’s put our most vulnerable people in a potentially dangerous situation,” Harrigan said.
Alberta Health said Omicron is causing a rapid increase in cases in continuing care, in parallel with spread in the wider community, but far fewer severe outcomes.
A spokesperson for the ministry said vaccines are reducing the severity of cases in continuing care.
According to Alberta Health, as of Jan. 12 there have been three deaths associated with continuing care outbreaks in the current wave, compared with 153 deaths in the 4th wave (Delta) and 1,042 deaths in the Dec. 2020 – January wave prior to widespread vaccination.
The Brenda Strafford Foundation (BSF) is a seniors’ care charity that runs four continuing care facilities in Calgary.
President and CEO Mike Conroy said in a statement on Sunday the restriction was an important safety measure early in the pandemic, but that BSF supports lifting this policy now based on the protection of high rates of immunization in residents and staff.
“We look forward to welcoming the return of staff that have been restricted from working at more than one site to help bolster our staffing levels,” Conroy said.
B.C., Ontario and Manitoba lifted similar restrictions last year for health-care workers who are fully vaccinated.