The Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) says there’s no doubt COVID-19 has increased the stress healthcare workers face on the job, but they argue they’re doing everything they can to increase staffing levels.
The SHA released a statement on Wednesday defending their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak after complaints from CUPE Local 5430, who accused the government of creating “a dangerous powder keg situation” with its policies. The union said it was concerned about lack of transparency in SHA facilities, and about overworked staff struggling with exhaustion and deteriorating mental health.
Dean Biesenthal, the executive director of human resources at the SHA’s Public Health Incident Command Centre, said they began meetings with union leaders early in the pandemic, and have met every weekday since. He said they’re trying to hire more personnel to address the surge in demand, while also being as open and supportive of healthcare workers as possible.
“Staff are our most precious resource as they provide the services to those we serve,” Biesenthal wrote. “This is a challenging time for our staff given the demands of COVID-19. It is challenging for them in both their work lives and home lives. We thank the staff of the SHA for everything they are doing each and every day for the people of Saskatchewan. We have been and continue to determine staffing requirements and recruit to fill those needs.”
Biesenthal said there are a few roadblocks preventing them from hiring staff as quickly as they’d like. For example, he explained, some roles have specific training requirements which make them difficult to recruit for.
The SHA has developed a surge plan which calls for maximizing staff resources in the most needed areas, while reducing them in others. They’ve also identified staffing needs in priority areas such as testing, contact tracing, cohorting in SHA owned and operated long-term care facilities, and in Healthline 811.
As of Nov. 13, the SHA has filled 569 full-time equivalent positions and committed to hiring 300 continuing care aids to deliver home care services, with more hires on the way.
Biesenthal also pushed back on suggestions the SHA wasn’t doing enough to notify employees about COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities.
The SHA has a standard process that is similar to other infectious disease policies. It includes internal notifications, like memos, which inform staff about particular facilities or areas. They also post outbreak information online. Biesenthal said he’s confident the process is working as it should.
“As with any situation involving a contagious disease, information is shared with staff providing care to any resident or patient who is positive,” he wrote. “This would include information on the resident/patient room’s door and chart. Keep in mind that there can be significant differences in the size of facilities, including long-term care and hospitals, which means that not everyone would be affected by a single case or even an outbreak.”
For mental health concerns, the SHA offers peer-to-peer support as well as Critical Incident Stress Briefing, across the province. They also give employees around the clock access to an Employee and Family Assistance Program and an OHS hotline.
When asked about CUPE Local 5430’s claim that they were creating a powder keg situation, Biesenthal wrote that the safety of patients, residents, staff member and physicians is the SHA’s top priority.
“This pandemic and the recent increase in case numbers and hospitalizations is adding stress for all of staff members who are worried about their patients, as well as their own health and safety,” he continued. “If a facility, such as a long-term care facility, meets the criteria for an outbreak, that information is shared with all staff including reminders on protocols to reduce the risk of transmission within a facility. With current public health orders, there is limited access to the facilities and the SHA is required to cohort staff members providing care to a specific facility (with) some limited exceptions.”
CUPE Local 5430 released a statement on Monday taking the government to task for their COVID response. President Sandra Seitz said the government is “flirting with disaster” by not being more transparent about facility outbreaks, and by not providing more mental health supports.
“The additional duties that they’re required to do, and the increase in (case) numbers—not only in the community, but within facilities—is adding a mental health toll on our members,” Seitz said during an interview. “There’s always that fear of taking it home to your families. That, combined with additional duties and just dealing with COVID in itself, does have an impact on our members.”