British Columbia

B.C. care aides left out of single-site staffing order and vaccine rollout, prompting concern for seniors

Home care aides are still being allowed to work at several different locations, and people in the industry fear that's putting vulnerable seniors at risk of contracting COVID-19 — particularly when aides in the private sector have no idea when they'll receive a vaccine.

Nearly 10,000 aides in the private sector still don't know when they'll be immunized, association says

Nisha Yunus, a residential care aide at Providence Health Care, is injected with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by Christina Cordova, a regional immunization clinical resource nurse in B.C. on Dec. 15, 2020. (Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters)

Home care aides are still being allowed to work at several different locations, including long-term care facilities and hospitals, and people in the industry fear that's putting vulnerable seniors at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Groups advocating for care aides who do home visits say the province's single-site staffing order, intended to restrict workers' movement between different facilities, doesn't go far enough.

That, they say, is particularly concerning when aides who work in the private sector aren't being included in the first phases of the vaccine rollout.

Care aides are not allowed to work in more than one long-term care home — but they are allowed to work concurrently in a long-term care facility and in an acute care facility, or they can work in a facility and do home support visits, explained Jennifer Lyle, CEO of SafeCare B.C., a workplace safety association for care aides. 

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry first introduced the order limiting health care staff to one facility in April 2020 and it was amended in the fall. 

But the Ministry of Health confirmed the orders pertaining to single-site staffing "do not apply to home support, acute care hospitals or extended care units physically located within acute care hospitals."

That means the same health worker could be going between multiple facilities.

"It's not necessarily the blanket approach that people may think it is," Lyle said.

'[Care aides] are visiting multiple homes every single day, seven days a week, and so that means a lot of vulnerable seniors would be exposed to home-health workers who are in different settings,' says Terry Lake, pictured in March 2017, when he was B.C.'s health minister. (The Canadian Press/Chad Hipolito)

Multiple jobs and points of contact

The B.C. Care Providers Association says while home care aides employed under public health authorities are included in the second phase of the vaccine rollout scheduled to start in February, nearly 10,000 aides in the private sector still don't know when they'll be immunized.

Association president Terry Lake argues that care aides doing the same work for private companies should also start getting the vaccine next month.

"It doesn't matter who's paying the salary at the end of the day. They are interacting with vulnerable seniors," said Lake, a former B.C. health minister.

"They are visiting multiple homes every single day, seven days a week, and so that means a lot of vulnerable seniors would be exposed to home-health workers who are in different settings."

In an emailed statement, the Ministry of Health says B.C.'s vaccination strategy is based on recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization.

"We made some changes to make it easier for people to have a full-time job as a care aide in a care home, but there are people who have needs that aren't met by that," the statement reads. 

"We can't prevent people from doing what they need to do to provide for their family, but we have to make sure we're adhering to safety protocols in every aspect of our life."

Private companies like Hero Home Care say they don't know when their employees will be immunized.

"We kind of just fall into a bit of a grey area and right now we're just trying to manage without and hope for the best," said co-founder Danny Birch, who says he's been in regular communication with the Ministry of Health.  

People wait in line for their COVID-19 vaccine in Vancouver on Dec. 22, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Aides seeking other work due to reduced hours

Some care aides have seen their hours reduced as companies like Hero Home Care try to reduce the number of clients they visit to reduce the risk of transmission in case they become infected.

Lake says the average salary for care workers is around $20 an hour and without full-time hours, they often look for work elsewhere to supplement their income. He says some care aides end up working in hospitality or, if they are registered care aides, they could be working in acute care units and doing home visits.

"It is very difficult to track all of the environments in which these home support workers are in on a daily basis," Lake said. "Without the vaccine protection, that puts those vulnerable seniors at risk as well."

Care aides who work for private companies also didn't receive a share of the millions of dollars in temporary pandemic pay issued to health-care workers early in the pandemic.

"To have that support from the government would have been very helpful to a lot of the caregivers," Birch said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Eva Uguen-Csenge is a multimedia reporter for CBC News in Vancouver. Get in touch with her at eva.uguen-csenge@cbc.ca or on Twitter @evacsenge for story tips.

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