Some essential services face staffing challenges as COVID-19 cases rise in Halifax

Some essential services are facing staffing issues as COVID-19 spreads through the Halifax area, forcing many workers into self-isolation.

The province reported record number of daily cases, totaling more than 2,500 new cases since the end of last week.

During a COVID-19 briefing on Tuesday, Premier Tim Houston said the number of exposures had started to impact essential services and frontline workers.

“It’s not that people are extremely sick, it’s that they have to isolate themselves. We see it in health care, but not just in health care, but in other critical systems and first responders and essential services,” Houston said.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston announced new restrictions on Tuesday to help mitigate rising case numbers and protect essential services. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“We see it in police, fire and public transport. We see it in many places. There are a lot of people who are not working because they are self-isolating.”

Nova Scotia Health said there are 264 employees in isolation related to COVID-19, including 69 in the Central Health Zone.

Gordon Peckham, the health authority’s acting director of operations for the central area, said there had been a gradual increase in cases in the area, but “it hasn’t been a significant challenge yet”.

He said some staff were being reassigned to different units to meet demand in the meantime.

Gordon Pickham, Nova Scotia Health’s acting director of operations for the central area, says the authority is handling the situation as it unfolds. (Radio Canada)

“We have managed to maintain most of our capacity to date by managing and balancing resources,” said Peckham, who is also director of Dartmouth General Hospital.

“We realize this is an evolving and rapidly changing situation, so we will try to adjust our resources to meet clinical demands to ensure the best possible care for our community and citizens.”

Shortages within Halifax Transit

The shortages also go beyond the healthcare system.

Tuesday, Halifax Transit has issued a notice stating that more than 30 bus routes had been canceled due to staff availability and disruptions would continue until further notice.

Ken Wilson, the president of the union representing Halifax Transit workers, said COVID-19 has taken its toll on members.

“We have been dealing with a lot of members who have been leaving for a few weeks due to self-isolation, [they’re] exhausted, stressed, then other members have to work overtime and now they’re exhausted,” Wilson told CBC News.

As of Tuesday, five union members had tested positive for COVID-19. Another 10 to 15 are in solitary confinement, Wilson said.

There are 1,000 union members, 750 of whom interact with the public as drivers or operators. Wilson said there are about 100 members who are sick or suffering from burnout as a result of their work during the pandemic.

“The members are starting to feel what they were feeling in November 2020. The anxiety is at its peak. It’s starting to ramp up,” Wilson said.

“It’s the worst time of year for that to happen. I think we’re all looking forward to some quality family time with our families, if possible.”

Wilson said the Omicron variant has drivers and operators concerned for their safety, the safety of their families and their passengers.

Ken Wilson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 508, said members were concerned about the highly contagious variant of Omicron. (Radio Canada)

“We’ve been dealing with this for two years, and I’ve never seen members react to the lack of safety protocols the way they have. We have members quitting almost every day.”

Wilson said he would like Halifax Transit to take more responsibility and introduce new precautions, like enforcing the mask mandate and limiting bus capacity.

In a statement to CBC News, Halifax Transit said there was high compliance with mask protocols for passengers, but medical exemptions should be considered.

“Halifax Transit continues to meet all Emergency Health Order requirements for an essential service,” the statement said.

“Safety measures include polycarbonate barriers for drivers, enhanced cleaning and mask protocols. Importantly, ridership is less than 50% of normal levels for this time of year.”

New Restrictions

To mitigate the spread of the virus and help protect essential services, the province has introduced new restrictions that will take effect on Wednesday.

Restrictions affect gathering limits for business and personal events like weddings, funerals, sports, shopping, arts, restaurants, bars, hair salons, long-term care facilities and movie theaters .

Physical distancing and masking requirements will remain in place, and the number of people allowed to gather informally in places like homes has been reduced from 20 to 10.

“We need to take action now to really slow the spread and protect all of these services,” Houston said.

Peckham said he hopes these new restrictions will help prevent further spread and health system impacts.

“The hope is that this will reduce the exposure of staff and doctors and therefore we can maintain our level of capacity and capacity.

Michelle J. Kelley