System can't handle COVID-19 case spike, nurses' union head warns as province updates surge plan

The head of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses says the health-care system can’t handle a surge as Omicron rages across the province.

SHA updated plan based on expected increases in demand for care, health workers getting sick

Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, says the health-care system can't handle a new surge in COVID-19 cases because it has yet to recover from the pandemic's fourth wave. (Matt Duguid/CBC)

The head of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses says the health-care system can't handle a surge as the Omicron coronavirus variant rages across the province.

On Thursday, the Saskatchewan Health Authority announced an updated surge capacity plan, based on expected increases in both the demand for health-care services and workers in that sector being away because they have COVID-19.

The SHA is bracing for up to one-fifth of health-care workers to be absent, although that won't necessarily happen provincewide at any given time.

About 1,000 staff had to take time off for work due to COVID-19 this week, according to the health authority's chief operating officer.

Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, is concerned about the health system's ability to deal with the pandemic's fifth wave, as it has yet to recover from the wave of cases caused by the Delta variant and faces human resourcing issues.

"We don't have a system that can handle a surge of any kind," Zambory said.

"We don't have the human health resource capacity. We don't have the space, and we don't have the ability."

The reason for that, she says, is that the province has "done nothing outside of this 'wait-and-see' approach, personal responsibility idea that hasn't worked for us yet."

Restrictions needed: SUN president

Zambory says the health system can't manage unless the government implements public health measures such as gathering restrictions.

Premier Scott Moe has declined to introduce such measures, saying he hasn't seen evidence they've been effective in slowing the spread of Omicron in other jurisdictions. 

"Our own Dr. Shahab is saying 'don't gather with anyone outside of your own household,'" said Zambory, in reference to Dr. Saqib Shahab, the province's chief medical health officer.

"Yet our premier is not able to support that for some reason. Without those measures put into place, our health-care system can't manage."

She also says it's disappointing that registered nurses haven't been consulted on surge plans. 

The health authority's plan has five strategies including establishing "go teams" of health-care workers who can be quickly deployed to provide care where there's a staff shortage.

Other changes in the plan, according to the health authority, include:

  • Optimizing acute care capacity and emergency department flow.
  • Maintaining enhancements to emergency medical services put in place to manage additional demand through previous COVID case surges.
  • Implementing human resource strategies, like cross-training staff to meet multiple system needs and using supplemental workforce teams.
  • Implementing time-limited, targeted service slowdowns when and where required.

Barbara Cape, president of the Service Employees' International Union West, says the plan is "thin on details" and leaves her with many questions.

"I'm glad they're sort of planning to plan but how are they going to staff these 'go teams?'" said the SEIU West president.

"What is this go team going to be comprised of? How will they assign people to go teams?"

'Looking at every possible source' for staff: SHA

Derek Miller, the interim COO of the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said those teams are building on what the authority has done in previous pandemic waves — namely, identifying workers in health services that were slowed down who would be available to support the health authority's response.

Miller said the SHA may also draw on retired health-care staff or contract services to private workers.

"Across the board, we're really looking at every possible source of staff to really mitigate the impact this is having on services," he said Thursday.

The surge plan will be implemented if the province experiences a significant rise in acute care patients in hospitals or if the health-care system faces staffing shortages. 


Yasmine Ghania is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan, currently based in Saskatoon.

With files from Daniella Ponticelli


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