Essential services across Canada affected by staffing shortages due to COVID-19

Emergency departments in many major Canadian cities are facing staff shortages due to an increase in COVID-19 cases across the country, with police, ambulances and firefighters all scrambling to redeploy and reinforce their ranks.

The highly transmissible variant of Omicron is already forcing businesses large and small across Canada to shut down as infected or potentially infected employees are forced into isolation. But staff shortages are also becoming a problem for some emergency services.

For example, many police departments across the country are reporting higher levels of frontline officers absent due to illness or isolation caused by COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of concern and it’s having an impact,” said Tom Stamatakis, national president of the Canadian Police Association.

Not all cities are affected. The Vancouver Police Department said Wednesday it had no concerns about staffing levels.

But in Winnipeg, the city’s police chief announced on Wednesday he was declaring a “state of emergency” for the Winnipeg Police Service as it now faces “real challenges ahead.”

“The current COVID-19 situation has had a significant impact on our staffing resources,” Chief Danny Smyth said in a statement.

Of the police department’s roughly 1,900 employees, there are currently 90 active cases of COVID-19 with 170 staff on COVID-19-related leave, he said. The declaration of the state of emergency gives him more leeway in the redeployment of officers to reinforce the ranks of the general patrol.

Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth has declared a state of emergency over staffing levels due to COVID-19, giving him more leeway to redeploy officers. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Other cities are also facing shortages of police personnel. In Edmonton, approximately eight per cent of police service personnel are absent due to COVID-19.

And in Calgary, the city’s police department currently has the highest number of employee coronavirus infections since the pandemic began, according to Susan Henry, head of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency (CEMA).

“To minimize disruption to emergency services, Calgary Police have begun redeploying officers from other areas of the organization to support frontline workers who are already exhausted before this wave of COVID-19,” said she said on a Wednesday morning newscast. conference.

This will impact other services provided by the Calgary Police, including proactive community policing, youth intervention and support services, as well as increased investigation times for certain offences, a- she declared.

However, Stamatakis of the Canadian Police Association said that so far, despite police personnel shortages, he has yet to hear of any massive cases of infection that have affected the deployment.

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“I think the way it’s affecting the deployment right now has been handled either by redeployment of resources or people coming in overtime,” he said.

Essentially, he thinks police will still have the resources to deploy to 911, life-threatening calls and security calls. But there may not be the capacity to send units for less serious crimes, he said.

“You redeploy your resources, you start collapsing units, tracking units, investigative units. But the problem with that is that the job isn’t done and it just sits there,” he said. he declared.

Which then undermines the likelihood of successfully investigating and ultimately prosecuting.”

Along with police, COVID-19 is also impacting the fire and paramedic workforce in some cities.

Montreal firefighters help a man out of a seniors’ residence following a fire in April. The spike in COVID-19 cases has presented unique staffing challenges, the city’s firefighters union president said. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Erin Madden, spokeswoman for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said in an email to CBC News that about 5% of their workforce has confirmed COVID-19.

“The department continues to monitor the situation closely and so far has been able to fill most staffing shortages through overtime,” she said.

In Nova Scotia, Charbel Daniel, executive director of provincial operations for emergency health services, which manages the province’s ambulance system, said in an email to CBC News that “there is no doubt that we We are feeling similar pressure on our staff resources and schedules as other front-line health care providers in Nova Scotia and in jurisdictions around the world. »

In Edmonton, Chief Joe Zatylny of the Edmonton Fire and Rescue Services said Wednesday that nearly 5% of the force’s frontline firefighters are currently off work due to COVID-19. Zatylny said they would replace furloughed staff to ensure “we can meet our main service demands”.

In a statement, Vancouver Fire Services said: ‘We are certainly seeing more employees leaving, but we are still maintaining our response capabilities for the City of Vancouver.

Chris Ross, president of the Montreal Firefighters Association, said since the start of the pandemic, about 325 members have tested positive for COVID-19. But nearly 200 of them have been in the past two to three weeks.

“One case is positive and then within days we have three or four or five or six other guys who were in close contact at the same station who develop symptoms and also test positive.“, he said. “So that presented some unique staffing challenges that I don’t think we’ve ever had to face before.”

Staffing shortages are being addressed by voluntary and mandatory overtime and, in some situations, bringing back those who have been infected just five days after their isolation, he said.

The executive director of provincial operations for Emergency Health Services, which operates Nova Scotia’s ambulance system, says they are also feeling pressure to turn over their staff (Tom Ayers/CBC)

As for the actual impact of the staffing shortage on the public, it will likely go unnoticed “in the sense that your first fire truck will likely still arrive more or less at the same time,” Ross said.

“But the second, third, fourth, fifth or additional fire trucks that show up in an incident. Those are the ones that are going to come in from a bit further away.”

Earlier this week, Matthew Pegg, chief executive of emergency management for the city of Toronto, said its firefighters were dispatched to low-priority calls first to ensure paramedics are free to respond to calls involving serious injury or requiring transport to hospital.

“Response times, especially for low priority calls, may increase from pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

Michelle J. Kelley