'This is like a big brick wall': Staff at northern shelter trying to get COVID-19 tests for clients

Jackie Ballantyne said there are currently three individuals at the shelter who are showing symptoms of COVID-19. She said she’s tried to get them tested at the medical centre in La Ronge, but has been advised to try and secure a referral through 811 instead.

Staff at Scattered Sites Outreach have had no success getting tests for clients showing symptoms

Staff at Scattered Site Outreach in La Ronge assist a client in this undated photo sent to CBC by staff. They say numerous people who work at the shelter have stepped away during the pandemic as they're worried about catching and spreading COVID-19 in the community. (Supplied/Scattered-Sites )

Despite the fact several of their clients were sick with coughs, fevers and aches — all symptoms of COVID-19 — staff at the Scattered Site Outreach program in La Ronge say they have been unable to get people tested for the virus.

Jackie Ballantyne, who has been working as an outreach worker with the program for more than 11 years, said she's worried her clients have contracted COVID-19 and are spreading it around the community without knowing. 

"I'm used to running into walls, but I find ways to get around them to help folks," she said. "But this is like a big brick wall and we can't crawl under it and we can't crawl over it." 

Ballantyne said there are currently three individuals at the shelter who are showing symptoms of COVID-19. She said she's tried to get them tested at the medical centre in La Ronge, but has been advised to try and secure a referral through 811 instead. 

However, she says while they've spent hours on the phone, they've been unable to get through to a registered nurse and the uncertainty is taking its toll on many in the shelter, as there have already been five cases reported in the north.

"We are at our wit's end," she said. "We are not sleeping at night." 

Jackie Ballantyne, the outreach program coordinator at Scattered Site Outreach in La Ronge says the shelter has been trying to get vulnerable clients with symptoms of COVID-19 in for testing, but has not had any success. She's worried they're spreading the virus in the community of some of them have coughs, fever and shortness of breath. (Supplied/Scattered Site Outreach)

Ballantyne said she feels the shelter has been left to fend for itself during the pandemic, claiming requests for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to the Saskatchewan Health Authority have been unanswered. 

She says the community has come forward in a big way, offering them the supplies required to keep going, but said they need more help from the province to protect their clients and their staff moving forward. 

"We have to have the doors open," she said. "People have to have a place — other than the ground — to sleep on, or a doorway, or an abandoned vehicle, especially when they're not feeling well."

In a statement, the Saskatchewan Health Authority said that it recognizes there are vulnerable populations in the north who need support. 

"This is why we have partnered with the Government of Saskatchewan to help provide support and resources, such as a proper accommodation for self-isolation for those who test positive," explained the SHA in the statement. "We are working closely with our community leaders and organizations to develop a culturally appropriate approach that encompasses various scenarios of challenges and vulnerabilities in our communities." 
"We also have reached out to Scattered Site Outreach in La Ronge to better understand how we can help, and emphasize our continuous advocacy and support," the SHA said.

The SHA also said staff who are currently working the 811 line are doing their best answer calls as quickly as possible, noting there is also a call-back feature people could use so they do not have to wait on the line. 

However, those needing urgent care "should go to the emergency department or call 911," as precautions are being taken for those who present with respiratory symptoms to prevent any further spread.

As of April 9, there were 278 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Saskatchewan, with five cases recorded in the far north, which includes La Ronge. (Government of Saskatchewan/Screenshot )

NDP MLA Doyle Vermette represents the Cumberland consistency and is the opposition critic for Northern Saskatchewan. He says with only 306 tests performed in the far north as of Thursday afternoon, he has concerns about a lack of testing in the region overall.

Vermette says he's heard the frustrations of those working at Scattered Site and is calling on government to do more to ensure the north's most vulnerable are being taken care of, as not everyone has the option to self-isolate at home. 

 "Well, where do the most vulnerable people, our homeless people, where do they go?" asked Vermette.

Vermette said the Saskatchewan NDP is planning to write a letter to the Ministry of Health to ensure there are enough test kits for the far north while calling for more testing in the region overall.  

"We know they're sick," he said. "We want to get them checked out."

The SHA reiterated the best way to keep yourself and others safe is to practice physical distancing,use proper hand-washing methods, self-monitor for symptoms and avoid groups.

"We are in this together and this is a reminder of how health is important for everyone," said the SHA statement.