Long hours and cancelled programs: How N.S. non-profits are dealing with Omicron

·5 min read
The Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank has moved staff from their furniture section during the Omicron wave to keep its food bank open. (Dave Laughlin/CBC - image credit)
The Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank has moved staff from their furniture section during the Omicron wave to keep its food bank open. (Dave Laughlin/CBC - image credit)

Non-profit and volunteer organizations in Nova Scotia, already stretched thin by two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, have been hit hard by the latest Omicron-driven wave.

Some have had staff and volunteers contract the virus, or have to isolate as close contacts, while other volunteers have withdrawn until case numbers decline.

"It's been a challenging two years," said Brian Posavad, CEO for the YMCA of Greater Halifax/Dartmouth. "But this last [wave], I think it's just the combination of all the stuff … it really just has an impact."

Over the past few weeks, Posavad said his organization has seen about 40 members out of 450 staff off work for either having COVID-19 or being a close contact.

There are also similar numbers in their volunteer pool of 150 people, he said. But with current Public Health restrictions many in-person programs involving volunteers have already been cancelled or moved online.

CBC
CBC

Roughly half of the volunteer force is now "in limbo" awaiting the return of athletic or tutoring programs, Posavad said, while many fitness instructors have pulled out until cases start going down.

The changes especially impact thousands of marginalized and low-income Haligonians, as well as immigrants or those with mobility issues, who rely on lunch, recreation and after-school programs that have been put on hold, Posavad said.

"While we're all in the same storm, we're all in different boats," Posavad said. "Some of the impacts are going to be far-reaching."

But Posavad said the Y continues to serve when it can, like this week's Y School, where 100 students are doing their at-home learning from two YMCA locations in downtown Halifax.

Once this wave passes, Posavad is hopeful charities and non-profits can share what they've learned with one another because rebuilding the provincial volunteer sector can't be done alone.

At the Parker Street Food and Furniture Bank, all furniture pickups and drop-offs are temporarily suspended and staff members have been moved to help with food services. The group's food bank serves more than 1,000 families in the Halifax area every month.

Spokesperson Amgad Zaky said Parker Street hasn't had COVID-19 cases among the crucial handful of staff members sorting and packaging items for the food bank and their other programs. But it will have "serious impacts" if that happens, Zaky said.

Parker Street has about 30 active volunteers at any time, but a core group of 10 comes on a weekly basis. Of those 10, three have now been asked to stay home for either being over 60 or unvaccinated, Zaky said.

Fewer volunteers to help staff organize food means Parker Street cannot always use all the fresh and frozen produce received through donations, Zaky said. It's either composted or sent to other food banks.

"Families will be impacted. The quality of the food that would be provided to them ... will be impacted. And we don't really want that to happen," he said.

The Nova Scotia SPCA has also dealt with COVID-19 cases among staff, but has been able to keep programs and adoption services open.

Nova Scotia SPCA
Nova Scotia SPCA

Sandra Flemming, director of animal care for the Nova Scotia SPCA, said about a dozen staff have contracted the virus in recent weeks at their six sites. Another dozen have isolated as close contacts.

In some smaller sites where there are only two or three staff, that meant closing their doors to the public for a couple of days but animals have never been turned away, Flemming said.

During the Omicron wave, Flemming said the SPCA has divided each shelter into two shifts that do not cross paths to keep contacts down. That requires 12-hour work days.

Animals have been moved around to ensure there are not too many at a site at any time in case all staff members get sick.

Flemming said there is an emergency team that's ready to spring into action if any shelter has a full outbreak.

"Thankfully we haven't had to use it yet. But we are concerned with this latest surge that it's possible," Flemming said.

Before COVID-19, Flemming said the Dartmouth site alone relied on 100 volunteers. Now about 20 remain to help with animal care, adoption counselling and more.

This "level of decimation" has come in waves, she said, and all volunteer recruitment has been paused.

CBC
CBC

More staff have been hired to make up the slack, Flemming said. That comes as donations have dropped in the past two years.

"It's starting to take a toll, but we'll get through it," Flemming said.

For the first time, cases have also reached rural volunteer fire services like the Saint-Bernard Fire Department in the Clare area, according to Chief Daniel Gaudet.

He said about eight people of their 28-member station have been off as cases of the virus or close contacts, some in key roles.

Gaudet said there is support from neighbouring departments, but the shortage will likely have an impact on the department's response. Training has been paused for now.

"The bigger the call, the bigger impact it will have," he said.

Public Health estimated 6,796 active cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, when one more death related to the virus was announced. Fifty-eight people are in hospital, with four in intensive care.

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