Nfld. & Labrador

1 more person in hospital with COVID-19, about 1,000 public workers sick or isolating in N.L.

The unions representing health-care workers in Newfoundland and Labrador say the system is critically strained, with about 1,000 employees now in isolation or infected with COVID-19 as a result of the Omicron variant wave.

'The system is beyond strained,' says NAPE president Jerry Earle

About 1,000 health-care workers are infected or in isolation as a result of the recent wave of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador, according to Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees. (Paul Daly/CBC)

The unions that represent health-care workers in Newfoundland and Labrador say the system is critically strained, with about 1,000 employees now in isolation or infected with COVID-19 as a result of the Omicron variant wave.

With the province's active caseload now in the thousands, union leaders say, health-care workers are feeling burnt out from having to pick up the slack from colleagues who are sick or in isolation. 

"They're just physically exhausted.… Our members have been fighting the pandemic for the past two years," Sherry Hillier, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, told CBC News on Thursday.

"But our members were burnt out even before the pandemic started, because there has been a shortage of licensed practical nurses and personal-care attendants for a number of years."

Newfoundland and Labrador reported 503 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, but the daily case count has become an increasingly flawed measurement as testing demands overwhelm the system's capacity. 

"Omicron is moving so quickly that it has become pretty much impossible to pin down the full extent of spread in real time," said Dr. David Naylor, who led the federal inquiry into the 2003 SARS epidemic and co-chairs the federal government's COVID-19 immunity task force, this week.

According to a media release Thursday afternoon, there are 241 new cases in the Eastern Health region, 154 cases in the Central Health region, 59 cases in the Labrador-Grenfell Health region, 41 in the Western Health region and eight cases found in private labs.

Public Health is now using other measures — including the number of hospitalizations, the positivity rate and wastewater monitoring — to get a better picture of how the virus is spreading.

There are four people in hospital, up one from Wednesday. With 109 new recoveries, the province's known active caseload  rises to 4,059, another new record.

In the past day, 4,057 tests have been completed, with a positivity rate of 12.4 per cent. A total of 415,713 tests have now been done in the province.

With the increase in cases, health workers are also being redeployed from their regular roles to help in the pandemic response, which includes a high demand at testing and vaccine clinics.

Hillier said her union's members are being asked to work a lot of overtime, but some are also being mandated.

Officials in the Western Health region are also dealing with the closure of the Corner Brook Civic Centre on Thursday, the city's only testing site, due to an unplanned power outage. Western Health says officials are developing a plan to resume testing but didn't make anyone available for an interview.

In a statement to CBC News, the city says the building is closed due to a leak near an electrical panel. The building was closed so electricians can fix the problem.

Vaccinations will continue at Waterford Valley High in St. John's Friday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. for people aged 30 and over.

Sherry Hillier, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says health staff are feeling burned out as many continue to pick up the slack with their colleagues in isolation. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Jerry Earle, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees, says the outbreak is a serious situation for his members. 

"Before this pandemic started our unions were raising the alarm about the level of staffing, especially in long-term care facilities and in a number of professions," Earle said. 

"The system is beyond strained, and it's causing extreme concern for front-line workers out there. There's significant numbers in isolation and significant numbers testing positive."

On Monday about 600 health-care workers were in isolation because of COVID-19, according to the provincial government. With 400 more now on the shelf, Earle said, those who are left behind have to make up the workload, putting more stress on an already strained health-care system. 

Earle said he fears it will be weeks before the situation levels out. 

Protecting capacity

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald says protecting the health-care system's capacity is among the highest priorities right now. While hospitalizations remain low — three as of Wednesday's update — the more than 3,600 active cases provincewide still put pressure on health-care and hospital staff, she acknowledged.

"We're very hopeful that we'll start to see a crest and that our case counts will start to come down and we'll be able to make some moves away from some of these measures that we have," Fitzgerald said Thursday.

Fitzgerald said hospitals are well prepared with experience from previous outbreaks, even with so many workers currently in isolation. 

"It's going to take all of us doing our part to ensure that our health system capacity is maintained," she said.

In a media release Thursday, Western Health said it's increasing visitor restrictions at the Bay St. George Long Term Care Centre due to a "significant number of staff and residents" at the facility testing positive for COVID-19.

The health authority said staff members are being redeployed from other areas to support the facility and ensure residents are cared for appropriately.

While one designated support person is permitted to visit patients and residents at other health-care facilities, they are not permitted at Bay St. George Long Term Care Centre, Western Health said.

The first positive case inside the facility was found  Dec. 31. Western Health said further testing found additional positive staff and residents. As of Thursday, 25 of the 107 residents who live at the home have been diagnosed with COVID-19. There are also 22 staff members who have tested positive.

Eastern Health says mental health services are continuing virtually, as all in-person mental health and addiction groups for outpatients have been suspended. Treatment centres will operate at reduced capacity, but the health authority encouraged patients or residents who are struggling to avail of online support services.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Newfoundland Morning and The St. John's Morning Show


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