Alberta plans to end single-site order for continuing-care workers next month
Move would allow people to work at multiple facilities caring for elderly Albertans
The Alberta government plans to rescind a public health order barring health-care workers from working at more than one continuing-care facility by mid-February, if not sooner.
Last fall, the province consulted with various unions and "other staff and employer representatives" about allowing health-care workers to work at more than one site, a spokesperson for the health ministry told CBC News in an email.
The single-site order is expected to be rescinded Feb. 16, the spokesperson said.
"Any decision will balance the lower risk to residents in the current wave with the pressure on the workforce and the need to continue to provide care," the spokesperson said.
Continuing-care facility operators are signalling they'd like the order repealed earlier to increase staffing to care for vulnerable residents.
Rule aimed to reduce spread
In spring 2020, early in the pandemic, the Alberta government instituted a restriction that prevented health-care workers from working at more than one long-term care home or designated supported-living facility. This was implemented provincewide by mid-October 2020.
The rule aimed to minimize the spread between facilities during pre-vaccination days which saw a high number of COVID-19 deaths among seniors in care.
Several provinces — namely British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba — lifted similar restrictions in 2021 for health-care workers who are fully vaccinated.
Last month, Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping signed a provincial order that would start that process here.
On Dec. 9, 2021, operators communicated with staff who are on single-site leave of absence, asking them to advise whether they wish to return to their previous positions or casual status, according to a provincial government document.
Operators will share the new schedules with their staff in the last week of January. As of Feb. 16, continuing-care staff throughout Alberta are free to work at multiple facilities, the document says.
Omicron creating staff shortages
The Omicron variant is straining health-care facilities with employees being unable to work because they are recovering from COVID-19 or self-isolating.
"This should have been, from our perspective, lifted months ago," said Mike Conroy, president and CEO of the Brenda Strafford Foundation, a seniors' care charity that runs five continuing-care facilities in Alberta.
The foundation proactively overstaffed its facilities but is now dealing with absences, he said.
About five to 10 per cent of staff are absent at any given time, Conroy said. About 85 of the organization's 1,200 employees have tested positive for COVID-19 so far in the fifth wave.
Conroy said the organization is aware of the impact of staffing shortages on the quality of care.
Ending the single-site order would open up the pool of workers, allowing the foundation to maintain the standard of care, he said.
Repeal 'completely irresponsible': nurses union
The United Nurses of Alberta, which represents more than 30,000 nurses, was among the parties consulted about repealing the single-site restriction, the province said.
Though it initially supported the proposed approach, the union is now pushing for a delay because of how Omicron has changed the COVID-19 situation, said David Harrigan, director of labour relations.
"It's completely irresponsible now to say, 'Let's eliminate the single-site order,'" Harrigan said.
Alberta has been reporting record high case counts and positivity rates from PCR tests that are only offered to specific groups of Albertans, mainly those who are at risk for severe outcomes and those who live or work in high-risk settings.
Hospitalizations, including intensive care admissions, are also on the rise.
Despite the union's plea for a pause, Harrigan said the province still intends to move forward with the plan and is looking at the possibility of implementing it sooner.
"The [government] response was, 'No, we're not going to delay. In fact, we've been having advisory committees and we're going to speed it up,'" he said.
"That was quite a surprise to us."
An email sent to the union on Jan. 12 on behalf of Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health — and obtained by CBC News — explained the process currently underway around repealing the single-site order.
An advisory team — made up of continuing care association leads, operator representatives, Alberta Health Services' zone leads and human resources representatives and Alberta Health officials — will monitor the process of returning staff to their previous positions and report any emerging challenges.
The email also states that continuing-care facility operators may need to lift the restriction sooner than Feb. 16 to fill gaps created by Omicron-related absences and allow for on-site staff orientation.
"We have confidence in the suite of many protective measures in place in continuing care facilities to lessen the introduction and transmission of COVID-19, above and beyond the single-site staffing restriction," the email said. These measures include employee screening, extra sanitization and continuous masking, it said.