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Retirement and long-term care homes still facing serious staffing shortage entering into second wave

A testing backlog in Ontario has magnified the problem to a 'perfect storm' according to a retirement home executive
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Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been hinting in recent days about a pay raise for personal support workers (PSWs).

While that isn't confirmed, it remains to be seen if such a pay raise would help solve a serious shortage in those workers in the province.

That small supply of workers is about to be pushed to its limit once again, as Ontarians face the reality of a second wave. 

There are differences this time around, though, both good and bad.

The good news is that personal protective equipment is in good supply, which will make a difference in infection levels. 

Screening policies are also being put in place right out-of-the-gate, something that arrived too late during the first wave.

At Forest Heights Revera, a local long-term care home that was one of the hardest hit in Ontario, changes have been made to their four-person wards.

"The homes are better prepared than they were in the first wave," said Region of Waterloo's Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang Tuesday. "If, for example, a home needs additional staffing because they're in an outbreak situation, they've lost a few staff due to staff either being ill or having to self-isolate, then they will reach out to other system partners in order to try to prevent staffing shortages."

Those shortages are exactly why many in the healthcare industry are holding their breath.

"I think that the lack of people who are looking for a job as PSWs is concerning, I think that we continue to have a shortage that is very serious," said Joy Birch, Chief Operating Officer at Highview Residences. "While it is completely understandable and necessary that a PSW not work between two healthcare settings, it also means that we have greater restrictions in who we're able to hire."

Having an adequate amount of staff is only half the battle, according to Birch, who noted that a home with an outbreak declared will see a decline in working staff, generally.

"What we learned going into the pandemic in March and April is that any home going positive will have a large percentage of their workforce walk out the door, because they cannot or do not want to work in an environment that is COVID-positive," she explained. "I have also spoken with other people in other organizations across the province who have communicated the same thing."

Birch admits that it's hard to know if the pandemic pay -- a temporary $4 per hour increase for frontline workers -- helped in encouraging people to pick up shifts or stay at work. Birch said, though, that it did further compensate hard-working staff for the work they were doing.

So far she has heard no plans of reinstating that pay from the government, 570 NEWS has reached out to the Ministry of Long-Term Care for comment.

A testing backlog in Ontario has another ugly side effect, according to Birch: one we didn't see in the first wave. 

"I have oversight on Kitchener-Waterloo, as well as London. Our wait times for COVID swabbing results are now four to five days, whether that's a resident or healthcare worker who's sick. Now that you've got the children in school coming home symptomatic, it is creating another layer of staffing challenges for our staff, who can't work because they've got a sick kid at home. It is another new layer of things that are happening in our healthcare sector in general, and it's really creating a bit of a concerning perfect storm of issues as we go into whatever this second wave is going to look like."

Dr. Wang and Birch had a message in common: the second wave will be decided by the community. As we saw in the first wave, community infection numbers eventually translate into outbreaks in long-term care and retirement homes, which affect the most vulnerable to the virus.

You can find public health resources on COVID-19 here.


Ben Eppel

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