No self-isolation for Sask. health care workers recently returning from international travel

A frontline health care worker from Saskatchewan who recently returned from Mexico is speaking out after the Saskatchewan Health Authority announced health care workers are being told to work, even if they've travelled outside of Canada, as long as no symptoms are present.

A frontline healthcare provider says policy puts vulnerable people at risk

Saskatchewan health care workers who have recently travelled outside of Canada are being told they can head back to work if they're not exhibiting any symptoms of a potential COVID-19 infection. The province's top doctor says 'enhanced precautions' will be in place. (The Associated Press)

A frontline health care worker from Saskatchewan was fully prepared to self-isolate for two weeks after returning from a trip to Mexico on Friday, given the growing COVID-19 pandemic.

She was not prepared for what her employer, the Saskatchewan Health Authority, told her to do instead.

"As long as you return before March 16 and you aren't showing symptoms, then you are to come into work," the worker was told. CBC has agreed not to name her because she worries speaking out might affect her employment. 

"I was angry because I just didn't understand why they would purposely increase the risk not only for our patients but also for the other staff," the worker said to CBC in a telephone interview. 

You're not going to be doing anyone favours if you're wiping everybody out because all of these people are coming to work and transmitting this virus.- Front-line health care worker 

In Saskatchewan and across the country, governments have told Canadians returning from international travel to self-isolate for 14 days before going back to work.

But that rule doesn't apply to Saskatchewan health care workers who arrived home prior to March 16. 

In a written directive issued Sunday, the SHA said workers returning from international travel who had no symptoms, had not been in contact with an infected person and had not been in Italy, Iran or Hubei-China "are able to work your regularly scheduled shifts." 

The frontline worker said she understands the health system needs staff but she said "you're not going to be doing anyone favours if you're wiping everybody out because all of these people are coming to work and transmitting this virus."

Chief medical health officer defends policy

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, reiterated at a news conference on Monday that "for the vast majority of travellers, the safest option for them, their families and the community is to stay home for two weeks.

"There's no ambiguity and no risk." 

However, Shahab defended the choice to send health care providers back to work within days of international travel. 

Saskatchewan's Provincial Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab says staying home and self-isolating is the best advice but that's not always possible for health care workers. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

"Ideally health care workers should be isolated for two weeks and they will," he said.

"But for specific circumstances where alternate arrangements cannot be found for a day or two or three days, that will be allowed with enhanced precautions in place."

The government defended this position by saying it was in keeping with a policy put in place by the Public Health Agency of Canada. 

That policy says there are exceptions to the 14-day self-isolation request "for workers who are essential to the movement of goods and people." Exceptions include "the movement of healthy workers across our border to go to work, including health care providers and critical infrastructure workers." 

As of Monday, there are five presumptive cases of COVID-19 and two confirmed cases in Saskatchewan. The frontline worker wonders why the government isn't thinking of the long-game and preserving the health of its workers and the system. 

"Why not be extra cautious right now? Have these staff stay home and make sure they're healthy, make sure they're safe to come to work and then when you're probably going to need them in a week or two when our confirmed cases start going up and the demands on our health care systems start going up hopefully these people will be ready to work," she said. 

'It's really scary'

CBC also spoke with a concerned mother who CBC will only identify by her first name, Sarah, in order to protect the identity of a family member who works in Saskatchewan's health system. 

That family member arrived home from a trip to the United States on Sunday. The worker was told she was not to self-isolate but instead was to head back to work immediately. 

It's a pandemic and we're not being responsible as a province.- Sarah, mother of child with compromised health

This alarmed Sarah because her daughter is in fragile health and in constant contact with medical professionals. 

"It's really scary," the mother told CBC in a phone interview. "For me, knowing that there aren't the same strict guidelines for the people who are going to be in my daughter's face and touching my daughter and I don't really have a choice about it." 

Sarah said it makes no sense that a clerk at the mall has to self isolate for 14 days but a health care worker doesn't.

"For some reason, I have a vulnerable kid and I can't go to the hospital and feel safe because they don't have the same protocol as everyone else apparently," she said.

"That sucks because we are the part of the population that are most vulnerable." 

She said her family member is angry about the policy and is struggling to decide whether to show up for her shift. 

"I think that her moral compass isn't going to let her go," said Sarah. 

Sarah says she's stunned by what the government is doing. 

"It's a pandemic and we're not being responsible as a province. Like this is a very irresponsible thing to do." 


Geoff Leo

Senior Investigative Journalist

Geoff Leo is a Michener Award nominated investigative journalist and a Canadian Screen Award winning documentary producer and director. He has been covering Saskatchewan stories since 2001.


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