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Outbreaks, staffing shortages reappear in Stratford area long-term care homes

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Staff absences approaching 20 to 30 per cent in some of Ontario’s long-term care homes aren’t being reported in Huron-Perth, but local workers in that sector are again under pressure as the Omicron variant reintroduces the threat of widespread COVID-19 outbreaks.


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Peter Bolland, the administrator at Spruce Lodge, a municipally owned not-for-profit long-term care home in Stratford, said Friday increasing community spread at this stage of the pandemic is making positive cases seem “a bit inevitable” after vaccines provided a lengthy reprieve from the dangerous outbreaks seen previously. 

Although Spruce Lodge wasn’t one of the local long-term care homes facing an outbreak on Monday, more than six staff members have recently missed worked because they tested positive or were identified as a high-risk contact, Bolland said. 

“We’re doing everything possible to catch things before they spread. Suffice to say staffing is a significant challenge. This is wave five. It’s been a long journey and it feels like we’re on a steep incline right now. I’m not sure the sector can keep up the pace for too long.”

Steven Harrison, the chief executive at Tri-County Mennonite Homes, the organization that oversees Greenwood Court in Stratford and Nithview Community in New Hamburg, said some personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks, continue to be difficult and expensive to acquire as long-term care operators adapt to new testing, isolation, and safe return measures for employees.

“Staff shortages … have been a reality for years before the arrival of the pandemic and this has simply exacerbated an already overwhelmed and under-serviced sector,” he said. “The province is trying, but availability of supplies does not even meet their expectation of use, and this will only worsen with the return to school and additional need … by the education sector.”


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Long-term care outbreaks are declared when two or more cases are linked, meaning it’s likely infection occurred in the home. They’ve been on the rise in Huron-Perth recently – eight long-term care and retirement homes in the region were experiencing outbreaks on Friday – and a similar trend is developing across the province. Out of the 626 long-term care homes in Ontario, 208 were experiencing outbreaks on Sunday, 22 more than the week before.

Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips addressed the rising numbers during a press conference Thursday.

“Staffing in long-term care remains a concern, it’s an area of focus, and it’s an area that we’re in daily contact with individual homes (about),” he said. 

But the province has been criticized for not making clear how many additional staff were being deployed to help hard-hit homes, or where absences were causing the most acute problems.

“Because Ontario failed to plan, more than 1,000 nursing home staff are off sick right now, causing nursing homes to desperately recruit from fast food chains,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of the SEIU Healthcare union.

Among the homes looking for help outside of the healthcare sector is Caressant Care’s location in Listowel, where a more traditional winter virus – the rhinovirus – has recently caused staff absences.   Stuart Oakley, Caressant Care’s communications and marketing manager, said kitchen staff have been among the most impacted in Listowel and the company is open to bringing in hospitality sector workers affected by the most recent provincial shutdown.


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“We’re trying to look a little bit outside the box in terms of where we can find some staffing to shore up,” he said. “Students if (they’re) fully vaccinated, in particular those that are pursuing healthcare in some way shape or form, are certainly welcome.”

Delayed PCR test results and the closure of the province’s schools, forcing some workers to stay home with their children, have also been impacting staffing levels, Oakley added. Plus, hospital workers who also work in long-term care aren’t allowed to enter homes experiencing an outbreak.

Typically, homes in need of staff will offer workers overtime pay or turn to a staffing agency for help, but burn out is high, Bolland said.

“We have ben recruiting over the course of the past year at a pretty steady level but that said, the need is sort of beyond what we’re able to provide at this point. It’s tough to keep up.”

Pandemic pay for nurses, housekeepers, and dietary staff that weren’t included when the province provided funds to bump the salaries of personal support workers would be helpful, Bolland added.

“It won’t stop people from getting sick necessarily but being recognized and valued goes a long way toward retaining them and have them go the extra mile during times like this.”



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