Nova Scotia

Some essential services face staffing challenges as COVID-19 cases rise in Halifax

Some essential services are now facing staffing challenges as COVID-19 spreads through the Halifax region, forcing many workers into isolation.

Premier Tim Houston says exposures have started to impact health care and transit services

Some health-care workers have had to be reassigned to address demands created by other workers isolating. (Shutterstock)

Some essential services are facing staffing challenges as COVID-19 spreads through the Halifax region, forcing many workers into isolation.

The province has been reporting record-setting daily case counts, adding up to more than 2,500 new cases since late last week.

At a COVID-19 briefing Tuesday, Premier Tim Houston said the number of exposures have started to impact essential services and front-line workers.

"It's not that people are extremely sick, but it's that they're having to isolate. We're seeing it in health care, but not just in health care, but other critical systems and first responders and essential services," Houston said.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston announced new restrictions on Tuesday to help mitigate rising case numbers and protect essential services. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

"We're seeing it in police, fire and transit. We're seeing it in many places. There are a lot of people that are off work because they're isolating."

Nova Scotia Health said there are 264 employees in isolation related to COVID-19, 69 of whom are in the central health zone.

Gordon Peckham, the health authority's interim director of operations for the central zone, said there has been a gradual increase in cases in the area, but "it hasn't been a significant challenge yet."

He said some staff are being reassigned to different units to help with the demand in the meantime.

Gordon Pickham, Nova Scotia Health's interim director of operations for the central zone, says the authority has been managing the situation as it happens. (CBC)

"We have managed to maintain most of our capacity to date by managing and balancing the resources," said Peckham, who is also the director at the Dartmouth General Hospital. 

"We realize it's an evolving and rapidly changing situation, so we will try to adjust our resources to meet the clinical requirements to ensure the best care possible for our community and citizens."

Shortages within Halifax Transit

The shortages are also going beyond the health-care system.

On Tuesday, Halifax Transit issued a notice saying that more than 30 bus routes had been cancelled due to staffing availability and the disruptions would continue until further notice.

Ken Wilson, the president of the union representing Halifax Transit workers, said COVID-19 has taken its toll on members.

"We've been dealing with a lot of members going off for a couple of weeks because of self-isolating, [they're] exhausted, stressed, and then other members having to pick up that overtime and now they're burnt out," Wilson told CBC News.

As of Tuesday, five union members had tested positive for COVID-19. Another 10 to 15 are isolating, Wilson said.

There are 1,000 union members, 750 of whom interact with the public as drivers or operators. Wilson said there are about 100 members who are sick or suffering from burnout as a result of working during the pandemic.

"The membership is starting to feel like how they felt in November 2020. The anxiety is through the roof. It's starting to ramp up," Wilson said.

"It's the worst time of year for this to happen. I think we've all been looking forward to some good quality family time with our families if possible."

Wilson said the Omicron variant has drivers and operators worried about their safety, the safety of their families and their riders.

Ken Wilson, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 508, says members are worried about the highly contagious Omicron variant. (CBC)

"We've been dealing with this for two years, and I've never seen the membership react to the lack of safety protocols the way that they have. We have members quitting almost every day."

Wilson said he'd like Halifax Transit to take more responsibility and introduce further precautions, like enforcing the mask mandate and limiting capacity on buses.

In a statement to CBC News, Halifax Transit said there is high compliance with passenger mask protocols, but medical exemptions must be considered. 

"Halifax Transit continues to follow all requirements under the emergency health order for an essential service," the statement said.

"Safety measures include polycarbonate drivers' barriers, enhanced cleaning, and mask protocols. It is important to note ridership is at less than 50 per cent of normal levels for this time of year."

New restrictions

To mitigate the spread of the virus and help protect essential services, the province has introduced new restrictions that will come into effect Wednesday. 

The restrictions affect gathering limits for both business and personal events like weddings, funerals, sports, shops, the arts, restaurants, bars, hair salons, long-term care facilities and movie theatres.

Physical distancing and masking requirements will remain in effect, and the number of people allowed to gather informally in places like homes has been reduced to 10 from 20.

"We have to take steps now to really slow down the spread and protect all of these services," Houston said.

Peckham said he's hopeful these new restrictions will help prevent further spread and impacts to the health-care system.

"The hope is that it will reduce staff and physician exposure and therefore we can maintain our level of capability and capacity."

With files from CBC's Gareth Hampshire

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