Surge in health-care worker COVID-19 cases causing burnout, nurses union says

Nearly two-thirds of Manitoba health-care workers who contracted COVID-19 did so in the past two months, data from the province suggests, and unions representing front-line staff say that’s contributing to burnout.

In a seven-week period in August and September, 61 health-care workers tested positive, making up the bulk of the roughly 100 such cases over the past six months, according to COVID-19 surveillance data from the province.

The recent uptick is adding strain to several health-care sectors, where employees are being required to work more overtime due to staffing shortages, said the Manitoba Nurses’ Union and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

“Nurses are incredibly stressed,” said nurses union president Darlene Jackson. “It’s increasing, and then when you add an outbreak at a facility or on a unit, and you have staff off self-isolating, it’s the perfect storm. It just makes things even worse.” 

Jackson said 27 nurses have tested positive since March. That represents a quarter of all health-care worker cases.

Between mid-March and early May, the province reported 36 cases of health-care workers testing positive. That trend flatlined for months amid mass closures and pandemic restrictions, before picking up again on the heels of loosened rules this summer.

Spikes in Prairie Mountain Health led to the reintroduction of restrictions at the end of last month. Similar rules were imposed in Winnipeg and surrounding communities this week amid what Manitoba’s chief provincial health officer recently called evidence of a second wave.

Sample results fast tracked

As of Tuesday, Winnipeg was home to more than 80 per cent of Manitoba’s 606 active cases. That has led to a rise in demand at COVID-19 test sites, resulting in hours-long wait times, particularly at drive-thru sites in Winnipeg.

The province opened a new mobile screening station Wednesday, but Jackson still worries about long wait times for nurses who can’t work until results are in.

“We’ve had staff shortages for a very long time,” she said. “Now, if you have an outbreak in your facility, we have nurses and health-care aides off self-isolating, waiting for test results. That has absolutely increased the shortage in nursing.” 

A provincial spokesperson said when it comes to getting tested, health-care workers have to stand in line like the rest of the public. But at the lab, their samples are flagged to reduce turnaround times.

A union that represents health-care aides, transporters, ward clerks, security guards and more said it’s seeing signs of a stressed-out workforce in its members.

Staff at personal care homes and home-care workers appear to be among those most affected by burnout, said the president of CUPE Local 204.

“Anxiety levels have come up big time with COVID just because they don’t know who they’re coming in contact with,” said Debbie Boissonneault.

At least 18 front-line workers represented by CUPE have tested positive in the past six months, she said.

‘It’s been a problem’

Workloads have also increased and staff are spread thin filling in holes when peers are off sick, she said.

“Someone calls in sick, the employer doesn’t replace that person, so now you have three people doing the work of four, and sometimes two [doing] the work of four,” said Boissonneault.

“It’s been a problem long before COVID, and with COVID it’s even become more.”

Darlene Jackson is president of the Manitoba Nurses’ Union. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

An outbreak at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre early in the pandemic resulted in 16 staff members testing positive, along with five patients and four close contacts. Two people died as a result of that outbreak.

After emerging from the first wave with no serious care home outbreaks, Manitoba has faced several in recent weeks, including one at Bethesda Place personal care home in Steinbach that has resulted in four deaths.

Jackson said cuts and closures stemming from the Pallister government’s health-care overhaul led to an increase in vacant nursing positions before the pandemic hit. That void contributed to a nurse workload that is “much heavier than it’s ever been,” said Jackson.

Jackson said appropriate personal protective equipment isn’t always available in some facilities, and that absence is also weighing on an already tired workforce.

“These nurses are incredibly stressed because not only do you have the workload and the staff shortage, now you have concerns about, ‘Am I protected? Are my residents or patients protected? And what am I taking home to my family?”

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