Sask. announces COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care

Medical staff will be restricted from working in multiple facilities; required to wear masks and screened for symptoms twice daily

Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab. (Screenshot)

Saskatchewan announced COVID-19 outbreaks at two care homes Friday, a situation the province had avoided thus far in its pandemic.

Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said there have been two positive tests related to a Regina assisted living facility and four related to a long-term care home in La Loche.

In Regina, two staff members have tested positive and three residents are showing symptoms. Those three cases are under investigation.

In La Loche, four people have tested positive — including a staff member, two non-household contacts and a resident.

An additional ten residents are being monitored for symptoms, as are ten staff members.

“While our overall cases are low, we need to emphasize protecting the most vulnerable,” Shahab said.

“That includes residents in long-term care facilities, personal care homes and assisted living facilities. These are high-risk situations and they are currently being managed with oversight by public health.”

The news comes the same day the province announced new measures designed to protect the most vulnerable, including residents of care homes and assisted living facilities.

The province ordered Friday that as of April 28, long-term care and personal care homes must make sure that each staff member works in only one facility.

Care homes can seek approval form a medical health officer to allow staff members to work in more than one facility if they are unable to make sure they have enough staff as a result of complying with the order.

The health order also formalized existing practices that see all staff members of long-term care, affiliate care and medical facilities undergo screenings before entering the facility and at the end of the day, including a temperature check. They all must wear, at minimum,  a procedure or surgical mask. Additional protective equipment may also be needed.

“We are striving as much as possible, especially or higher-risk settings like long-term care facilities, that staff work in only one facility,” Shahab said.

“Having said that, there are many categories of staff who are specialized and will have to work at several facilities as part of their work.”

Shahab said twice-daily health screening sand constant mask use will minimize the risk of spread.

It’s not as easy as shutting the doors on a community, the province said, as some non-COVID-related care is still needed and areas where specialists are required or where recruitment is challenging share resources.

Both Shahab and Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone rejected an argument that health care staff who work in more than one facility or community be tested before they go from one to another.

“There is no guarantee with swabbing and testing somebody that they’re not going to have the disease because of the incubation period,” Livingstone said.

“It would be testing someone who is asymptomatic and right now in our provinces and other provinces, it’s not being done. It’s being done on symptomatic people to ensure we’re doing it on the right people.”

He added that the province is having discussions about increasing testing, including on asymptomatic people, but hasn’t reached that decision yet.

Shahab said it’s not practical to test everybody once or twice a day every day, which is why the screening measures are in place.

“We do have two very important interventions” in the screening and masking requirements, he added.

While unions who represent health care and long term care workers welcomed the news, they’re looking for more to protect residents and employees.

The continuous masking policy and transition to single-site employment in acute and long-term care were praised by CUPE, which has been calling for such measures for weeks.

“This move puts in place protections for the most at-risk demographic: long term care residents,” the union, which represents care home workers, wrote in a press release.

They called for a masking policy that ensures it’s implemented across the health care sector and in all community-based services.

CUPE Local 5430 negotiated a letter of understanding (LOU) preventing workers from working in multiple facilities while maintaining their guaranteed hours, creates a labour pool for redeployment to respond to health care needs with clearly-established parameters, ensures no new layoffs for the duration of the agreement, protect employers redeployed from incurring expenses and ensures training and orientation to the required PPE for redeployed employees.

“We have seen a significant rise in precarious work in our health care system. Many of our members are forced to work multiple jobs, across jurisdictions, to cobble together full-time equivalency work,” said Sandra Seitz, president of Local 5430.

“This LOU will offer some protections to our members who are facing changes in the work environment from COVID-19.”

SEIU-West said it and other unions, including CUPE, SGEU, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses and Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan reached an agreement with the SHA to create a staff redeployment strategy for COVID-19.

“The health care unions have been calling on the SHA and the Ministry of Health for safety mechanisms to be put in place for staff and residents and to enhance access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplies over the past four weeks, with some success,” says President of SEIU-West, Barbara Cape. “This week we have focused on how to best build a human resource strategy that will allow our members to meet the care needs of Saskatchewan people safely during a forecasted COVID surge. At this time, it is imperative that our members have all of the resources they need to do this invaluable work within all facilities, agencies and services including the new assessment centres and test sites that have been set up across the province.”

The agreement, she said, provides for cohorting of staff who are currently working at more than one workplace and creates a labour pool to ensure staffing levels are adequate.

The provincial NDP called for cohorting of staff earlier this week. The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) also expressed concerns earlier this week that COVID-19 was being spread to the north by health care workers from urban centres. Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation said a Saskatoon-based nurse visited northern communities before then testing positive for the virus.

“It should have been done sooner, and we saw that was a choice in British Columbia that played a big role in decreasing outbreaks in long-term care there,” NDP leader Ryan Meili said during a Friday press conference.

He said he’s concerned about the growth in cases in northern Saskatchewan because they’re remote, further from care and have higher-density housing.