Son fears COVID-19 spread after home-care staff ordered to also work in Winnipeg nursing homes

A Winnipeg man whose 89-year-old mother relies on home-care workers is worried the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority’s plan to force these staffers to work at nursing homes puts her at risk from COVID-19.

“Personal care homes have been the centre of coronavirus in the province,” said Garry Kowalski.

“And now to send home-care workers in there and then having them come out into the community, it’s almost like … helping the virus spread in the community.”

Kowalski said the only people his mother has contact with are him and her home-care staff. Making those workers go to a nursing home one day and her home the next is dangerous. 

“She’s 89. And if she got COVID, I don’t think the outcome would be very favourable,” he said.

Kowalski said he recently found out through his mother, Olga, that the home-care workers who come to her house every day will soon be splitting their time between a nursing home and their home-care clients.

“And right now, they don’t have an overabundance of [home-care] staff,” he said. 

“There’s been several times lately where they phone my mother up saying, ‘We don’t have anybody for you this evening.'”

Garry Kowalski, 68, said he is worried his mother will contract COVID-19 from a home-care worker if they are also working in nursing homes. (Submitted by Garry Kowalski)

This redeployment of staff is part of a strategy by the provincial government and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority to get much-needed help into nursing homes. 

Shared Health Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa announced last week that some home-care services will be suspended as the workers move to support staff in personal care homes.

But CBC has learned that any health-care worker who works in the community — rather than in a hospital setting — could be redeployed to also work at a nursing home until the situation at the homes is “stabilized,” according to a WRHA spokesperson. 

This comes after a memorandum of agreement was signed in March between health-care unions and the regional health authorities and Shared Health.

It states that any health-care employees can be redeployed to any other site, facility or program if there is a need due to COVID-19.

Now, health-care officials are putting that clause into effect.

According to one union, the memorandum means workers cannot refuse the deployment unless they have a medical reason. 

Debbie Boissonneault, the president of CUPE 204, said her members cannot refuse to work at a personal care home. (Debbie Boissonneault/Facebook)

A WRHA spokesperson said redeployments started last week, but did not disclose how many people have been told they’re going to have to work at a nursing home. 

“This MOA was agreed to in order to allow health regions to be able to quickly deploy staff to support areas of high or increased … need by identifying other areas where services could be stopped, slowed or postponed,” WRHA spokesperson Bronwyn Penner-Holigroski said in a prepared statement.

That could include nurses, health care aides or staff who work at community health centres like Nine Circles, Mount Carmel or the Women’s Health Clinic. 

Since last week, Penner-Holigroski said “community staff” from the Winnipeg area have been sent to support nursing homes.

That’s largely been home-care staff, but she said the health authority is exploring the possibility of moving staff from other areas, if needed. 

Staffing shortages came to the forefront during major outbreaks at the Parkview Place and Maples care homes in Winnipeg.

Some homes, such as Golden Links Lodge, have asked families to volunteer to monitor their loved ones as they deal with severe staff shortages.

As of Wednesday, two-thirds of all care homes under the co-ordination of the WRHA were experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, with 159 positive staff currently out of the rotation and isolating.

Redeployed staff will be trained: WRHA

Any person redeployed will be retrained in proper personal protective equipment use and be given access to the equipment, said Penner-Holigroski.

“Evidence continues to show that our PPE is effective in protecting the wearer and reducing the spread of the virus when worn properly,” she wrote.

Some home-care workers may eventually be permanently seconded to work at a nursing home, but for now will be doing both jobs, she said.

Debbie Boissonneault, the president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 204 — which represents over 2,500 home-care workers — said her members cannot refuse to work at a nursing home if they are asked.

Some have volunteered to work at the homes, but others aren’t able to take on the extra risk, she said. 

Home-care workers have seen how short-staffed care homes are, “and they want to help them. They truly do. They signed up for health care because that’s what they want to do, is care for people,” she said.

“But at the same time, there is concerns, and the concerns are, what are they bringing out of that personal care home.”

Boissonneault said she hasn’t been told how many home care workers are being redeployed.

Kowalski is worried that between more staff being assigned to nursing homes and some quitting so they won’t have to go, there will be no one to look after his mom or others who rely on home care.

His hope is the government reverses its decision, or separates home-care staff between those who work at a nursing home and those who see clients in their homes.

“I would hate to be having to make these decisions, but this is one decision they should reconsider,” he said.

A request for comment from Manitoba Health was not returned.