Staffing shortages leading to burn-out at Foothills hospital amid COVID-19 outbreaks: Unions

Health care works from nurses to support staff are feeling overwhelmed and overworked in light of staffing shortages at the Foothills Medical Centre due to six COVID-19 outbreaks, according to two unions representing thousands of the Calgary hospital’s employees.

In a Thursday update, AHS said one more patient had died as a result of the outbreaks, bringing the total number of deaths to five. Two additional patients were confirmed to have the illness, as well as one more staff member and one more visitor, for a total of 67 cases.

Read more: Patients diverted to other hospitals as Calgary’s Foothills COVID-19 outbreaks continue to grow

As of Monday, Alberta Health Services said 290 staff were in isolation as a result of the outbreaks — a total which more than doubled over the weekend. That number is only being updated twice weekly by health officials.

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“When you take 300 people out of a wheel wheel that large, it’s significant, and it’s going to have impact,” said Bobby-Joe Borodey, vice-president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

Click to play video 'Family of man admitted to Foothills hospital during COVID-19 outbreak says they weren’t told ‘entire story’' Family of man admitted to Foothills hospital during COVID-19 outbreak says they weren’t told ‘entire story’

Family of man admitted to Foothills hospital during COVID-19 outbreak says they weren’t told ‘entire story’

The AUPE represents 3,500 employees at the hospital, including support staff, health-care aids and licensed practical nurses.

Borodey said burn-out is imminent as more and more shifts need to be filled in order to cover for those in quarantine.

“The concern is: how can we keep going at this pace?” she said.

“If we were short-staffed prior to the pandemic, how can we continue to keep going through this crisis without bringing in more qualified people to cover these shifts so we can maintain what we consider to be base-level operations?”

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Borodey said the AUPE would like to see more effective action from leadership of the health-care system, starting with the government, to come up with a solid plan for dealing with staffing problems through the pandemic.

Read more: Surgeries postponed, visitors restricted as COVID-19 outbreak grows at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre

The United Nurses of Alberta represents registered nurses working at the Foothills. According to director of labour relations David Harrigan, members say they’re being asked to work a lot of overtime and are expected to pick up extra shifts.

“They feel that they’re being taken advantage of and not appreciated,” he said.

“The local’s phones are ringing off the hook, and people are saying: ‘I’m exhausted, I can’t continue to pick up all these extra shifts, I can’t work the overtime.’”

Harrigan said the 300 nurses accounts for five to 10 per cent of the workforce.

AHS said Thursday that the first employees to go into isolation will be returning to work over the next few days, which should start to alleviate some of the staffing challenges.

“As we see the pace of new cases slowing significantly, we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to maintain our workforce in a way that’s sustainable,” site medical director Dr. Peter Jamieson said.

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Read more: 3 more healthcare workers test positive for COVID-19 in Foothills outbreak

He added staff are receiving support and coaching on how to wear proper personal protective equipment while at work.

“Our main strategy is to work as hard as we can, to be sure that the Foothills hospital is a safe place to work, as well it is a safe place to receive care,” Jamieson added. “We have an extensive plan in place to do that.”

A total of 45 surgeries have been postponed as a result of the staffing shortages, and some cardiac catheterization patients had to be diverted to hospitals in Edmonton for procedures.

AHS said Thursday it did not have an update on the investigation into how the virus got into the hospital, or how or where it spread.

‘Terrifying to go to work’

According to Borodey, many healthcare workers are also scared about going to work.

“It’s terrifying to go to work every day, during this crisis, and definitely during this outbreak,” she said.

“They’re concerned for their safety, they’re concerned for the safety of their family members, and they’re concerned for Albertans as well.

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“They want to make sure that there’ll be safe while they’re there, and they’re not 100 per cent sure that that’s the case.”

Click to play video 'Calgary’s Foothills hospital limits visitors, postpones surgeries due to COVID-19 outbreaks' Calgary’s Foothills hospital limits visitors, postpones surgeries due to COVID-19 outbreaks

Calgary’s Foothills hospital limits visitors, postpones surgeries due to COVID-19 outbreaks

Borodey said there’s an added financial stress. Special pay for healthcare workers that was available at the start of the pandemic stopped when the public health emergency ended in June — meaning permanent employees have to use sick and vacation time and temporary employees aren’t paid during their isolation.

“We feel that neither of those options is appropriate,” Brododey said.

“You know, they’re responsible for caring for Albertans, and they need to be compensated for that.”

Read more: Alberta nurses’ union calls on AHS to bring back paid leave as COVID-19 pandemic continues

Harrigan said the special pay system should be reinstated to offer the nurses the support they need.

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“We just don’t think it’s reasonable to say to healthcare employees, ‘You take take the burden of all of this — but by the way, you’re going to take a financial hit as well,’” he said.

When asked about the staffing challenges in her Thursday update, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she sympathized with anyone dealing with an outbreak in their workplace, but couldn’t comment specifically on plans to address the concerns being raised, deferring to AHS.

“I certainly want to emphasize how much I appreciate all of the work that goes into responding to this outbreak and the tremendous effort that is underway right now to ensuring that there is no further onward spread at the Foothills, and in other health-care settings across the province, to making sure that the everyday precautions are in place to prevent spread,” Hinshaw said.

Request to return to bargaining

The UNA would like to return to the collective bargaining table to find a long-term way to address the safety, staffing and pay concerns nurses are voicing, Harrigan said.

“First of all, maybe we could look at advertising and posting vacancies and bringing in more nurses,” he said. “Maybe we can look at some sort of system where if there’s part-time or casual employees who generally work at another site, maybe they need to start looking at utilizing some of those people.

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“We want to sit down with AHS and work something out that’s going to be workable for them and workable for our members as well.”

Read more: United Nurses of Alberta says AHS seeking 4-year wage freeze, premium rollbacks

Harrigan said the union has proposed restarting negotiations on Oct. 16, after agreeing to put them on hold until after Oct. 15.

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