Personal care home staff in Manitoba can once again work at multiple sites as long as they’ve received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — a move that has some researchers and unions concerned.
“We’re putting in other restrictions and limiting gathering sizes, yet we’re saying it might be safe for me as a nurse to work at two facilities. I fail to see the logic in that decision,” said Genevieve Thompson, an associate professor in the college of nursing at the University of Manitoba.
Last April, the province restricted personal care home staff from working in multiple sites in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in care homes.
This week, the province announced staff would once again be able to work at multiple sites as of Tuesday, provided it’s been two weeks since they had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and their second dose will be administered within 16 weeks.
The province says the change is intended help with staffing challenges at personal care homes as the third COVID-19 wave hits Manitoba. Because the majority of care home residents have been vaccinated, it’s now safe to share staff, the province says.
A provincial spokesperson said out of approximately 10,000 personal care residents in Manitoba, 8,739 have been fully vaccinated, and another 558 have had a first dose.
There are approximately 60,000 health-care workers in Manitoba, including those in personal care homes, the spokesperson said. Of those, 42,066 are fully vaccinated and 8,922 have received one dose.
Old model wasn’t working: researcher
Thompson, whose research focus is improving the lives of people living and working in long-term care homes, says she’s concerned for the safety of residents.
While the province says health-care workers need to show proof of a first vaccine dose before working at another site, Thompson says that might not matter.
“We still don’t know a lot about the effectiveness of one dose of a vaccine, even if residents themselves have been vaccinated,” she said.
“We also don’t know how well the vaccine is going to work against the [coronavirus] variants that have become very predominant here in Manitoba.”
The Long Term and Continuing Care Association of Manitoba estimates about 40 and 45 per cent of all personal care home workers are vaccinated against COVID-19. The slow uptake is part vaccine hesitancy and part inconvenience, according to the association’s executive director.
“Many of these staff are our younger staff, and they have a home and a family to get to after work,” said Jan Legeros.
“I do think that we would see a big change in the percentage vaccinated if we could offer it in-house.”
Thompson said even if they are vaccinated, allowing workers to pick up shifts at other sites won’t fix staffing challenges in Manitoba, which were an issue even before the pandemic.
“That is why many staff who work in these facilities work across multiple care homes … there’s no full-time work available in the home that they are predominantly employed in,” she said.
“Why are we not investing in hiring more health-care aides and nurses? Why are we not paying them better?” said Thompson.
“Why are we continuing to just revert back to the model of care that wasn’t working well before?”
The president of the Manitoba Nurses Union echoed that concern.
“Although the announcement to expand the single site order sounds promising, it is yet one more way to move, stretch and overextend already spent nurses,” Darlene Jackson said in an emailed statement.
“They are paying the price of a broken system.”
Asked about safety concerns, a provincial spokesperson said in an email the province remains “confident our vaccination strategy is robust and focused not only on our most vulnerable, but all Manitobans as we continue to expand vaccine eligibility.”
New order allows for flexibility
In spite of the slow uptake on vaccination so far, the Long Term and Continuing Care Association’s Legeros says the change is a good, safe way forward as Manitoba enters what’s believed to be its third wave of the pandemic.
“We want to move forward safely, and that’s why they’re saying that the staff person would only be allowed to go from personal care home to personal care home if they are vaccinated,” she said.
Legeros said when the second wave hit, staffing levels suffered as workers had to take time off due to their own positive cases, or exposure to close contacts at work or at home.
“Sometimes when a positive case was identified, the first thing that would happen is you would lose 30 to 40 per cent of your staff for this variety of reasons,” she said.
The new exemption for vaccinated staff means outbreaks and positive cases won’t result in a bind for help, she says.
Revera, the for-profit company that owns seven long-term care homes in Winnipeg and one in Brandon, said in an emailed statement to CBC News it welcomes the province’s decision to allow vaccinated staff to work at multiple sites.
“It will give us more internal staffing resources for our homes,” communications director Larry Roberts said.
But the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents about 5,600 long-term care workers in Manitoba, says the new rules mean staff can only pick up shifts as needed.
That won’t help workers who might have held more than one part-time position pre-pandemic, but had to give up a permanent job when they were restricted to working at a single site last spring, CUPE says.
“They’re not actually letting people go back to their [permanent] jobs if they’ve had a vaccine — just saying you can work at both sites” on an as-needed basis, said Shannon McAteer, health-care co-ordinator for CUPE.
“Is their intention to never let them go back to both of their jobs? Because that is unfair. People don’t work two jobs because they’re bored. People work two jobs because they have to.”