COVID-19 in N.L. long-term care as serious as ever, says union president

The unions that represents health-care workers in Newfoundland and Labrador say COVID-19 is running rampant among staff and residents in some of the province's long-term care homes, exacerbating staffing challenges.

Seniors outside long-term care still struggling with isolation, says Seniors N.L. director

Newfoundland Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle says high levels of COVID-19 among staff and residents in some long-term care homes are hindering patient care. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Unions representing health-care workers in Newfoundland and Labrador long-term care homes say rampant COVID-19 infections in staff and residents are making a difficult situation even worse.

Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees president Jerry Earle told CBC News nearly 800 health-care workers, most of them in long-term care, are off due to COVID-19.

"It's probably as serious as it ever was because the numbers of health-care workers are either positive or in isolation are equivalent to any time during the pandemic," Earle said Friday.

Earlier this week, Health Minister John Haggie told CBC News that the province's health-care system would be "managed" to deal with the rising levels of COVID-19. Earle said NAPE represents about 85 per cent of the province's long-term care staff, and Haggie's comments don't reflect what he's been hearing from members.

"In long-term care we are not managing. We have facilities that are actually functioning short at some times."

The number of long-term care home workers in isolation due to COVID-19 varies day to day. CBC News has asked each regional health authority how many workers are off due to COVID-19. As of Friday evening, the only regional health authority to reply was Western Health, which said 27 out of 660 long-term care home staff were in isolation.

Impact on residents

As of Friday, 38 people were in hospital due to COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador — down two from a provincial record of 40 set Monday. However, Yvette Coffey, president of the union that represents the province's registered nurses, says that number doesn't reflect the number of patients and residents in hospital or long-term care who have COVID-19.

"The actual number of patients and residents that are infected with COVID, either after admission or in our long-term care facilities, is much higher," Coffey said Thursday.

Yvette Coffey, president of the Registered Nurses' Union Newfoundland and Labrador, says the number of hospitalizations on the government's COVID-19 dashboard doesn't reflect the number of patients in long-term care homes who have COVID-19. (Emma Grunwald/CBC)

Coffey said she's heard of COVID-19 outbreaks in multiple long-term care facilities, including Lakeside Homes, a facility in Gander, where she said nearly 60 per cent of residents have recently been infected.

Earle said some long-term care homes are struggling to maintain enough staff to provide basic personal care for residents, who often need help with tasks like eating and bathing. He said he's heard from health-care workers who believe public health restrictions were lifted too soon and would like to see some reinstated, especially in health-care facilities.

"We certainly got to sit down and see what can we do to ensure things stabilize and doesn't worse," he said.

Earle said the number of patients and residents who have COVID-19 also puts a strain on staff because of the extra level of care they require.

Seniors hunkering down

Health officials said part of the reason for lifting public health restrictions in March was to begin a return to normalcy, but on Friday, Seniors N.L.'s director of information and referral services said most seniors who contact the organization are still hunkering down to avoid becoming infected.

"It's very hard for people's mental health, and of course, you know, isolation and loneliness actually can affect your physical health as well," Elizabeth Siegel said.

Siegel said the organization is also helping low-income seniors struggling with the cost of living. She said Seniors N.L. has heard from people forced to choose between food and medicine, or struggling to afford heat.

"People are really, really scrambling out there, and I think there's a lot of fear around that as well."

Siegel encouraged people to remember the impact of the pandemic on seniors in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Some people feel like it's over, but it's not really over and it's not over for seniors who are a little bit more vulnerable to the effects of COVID," she said, "If there's a senior in your life … reach out to them and check in on them and see if they need anything and see how they're doing."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show