British Columbia

Staffing, isolation-space concerns mount as Omicron moves through DTES outreach workers

Outreach workers on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside say they're worried that as COVID-19 cases mount and sweep through staff, there won’t be enough people to maintain the basic but lifesaving services the community requires.

Health authority says it's working to support organizations impacted by staff shortages due to COVID-19

Advocates worry Omicron could create more challenges for already short-staffed outreach services in the Downtown Eastside. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As Omicron sweeps through the province and the world taking its toll on workforces, employers are trying to find ways to keep their businesses and organizations operating with less staff.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said businesses should be prepared to operate with as much as one-third of their workforce away due to illness.

But in a part of the province where staffing is already stretched thin and services are critical for the local population, fewer workers is a serious problem.

WISH Drop-In Centre Society, whose services include a drop-in centre for street-based sex workers, says it is constantly assessing how it can redeploy staff to maintain front-line operations.

"We're struggling, just like all the other nonprofits in the Downtown Eastside,"  executive director Mebrat Beyene told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko, adding that managers at WISH didn't get time off over the holidays. Instead, Beyene says, they covered shifts on the floor that otherwise wouldn't have been staffed. 

If someone tests positive for COVID-19 through a rapid test or a PCR test, they are currently required to isolate for at least five days. If their test is negative but they have symptoms, they are asked to continue to isolate until they are well.

As more and more staff call in sick, Beyene worries about the possibility of having to reduce services, or worse, close.

"It's really not an option to scale back and the issues that [clients] are dealing with, the health and safety that they're dealing with, the violence that they're trying to avoid, our spaces need to be open. Where we're headed right now is very worrisome."

On the Downtown Eastside, where overdose prevention is essential, the consequences of pausing or closing those services could be severe. 

"We could be seeing an increase in deaths," Beyene said. 

According to Vancouver Coastal Health, no agencies that provide harm-reduction services or overdose prevention have had to close their doors due to COVID-19.

SWAN Vancouver, which advocates for the safety of indoor sex workers, says it has had to pause volunteer programs, while the PACE Society, which offers one-on-one, drop-in and outreach support to sex workers has had to reduce services as it also struggles to maintain staffing levels.

Vancouver Coastal Health says it is ready to help.

"We will work with agencies if they don't have enough staff to provide essential services in order to ensure that those services don't have to close," said Vancouver Coastal Health's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Patricia Daly.

Isolation capacity

Beyene also worries about the virus moving through the residents of the Downtown Eastside, many of whom are precariously housed or homeless, leaving them nowhere to isolate safely. 

She said trying to find spaces for people during previous waves of the pandemic was already challenging, and if there are two, three or four times as many cases, she's not sure what will happen. 

"I don't know how quickly new isolation spaces are coming online," she said. 

Outreach workers at a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic on the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver, British Columbia on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Daly is confident that with ongoing testing in the community, public health will be able to identify cases sooner and isolate them to reduce spread. 

"We've never run out of isolation capacity and we certainly have it available right now.

LISTEN | WISH executive director Mebret Beyene raises concerns about staffing, isolation capacity in DTES

Agencies on the Downtown Eastside are struggling to keep services going for Vancouver’s most vulnerable as COVID numbers continue to climb and frontline workers are calling in sick. We check in with Mebrat Beyene at WISH Drop-In Centre Society. 10:54

With files from On the Coast

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