Sask.'s chief medical health officer urges essential service employers to have COVID contingency plans

·5 min read
Saskatchewan chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said residents did well to limit the spread of COVID-19 through the holidays it was important for employers to have contingency plans in place as the Omicron variant begins to spread in the province.  (The Canadian Press - image credit)
Saskatchewan chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said residents did well to limit the spread of COVID-19 through the holidays it was important for employers to have contingency plans in place as the Omicron variant begins to spread in the province. (The Canadian Press - image credit)

COVID-19's Omicron variant is causing problems in Canada's workforce across the country.

Some have raised concerns that as cases rise more and more essential service employees like police officers, paramedics and crucial frontline workers could wind up calling in sick.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, said residents did well over the holidays to minimize the spread of Omicron, but that the next four to six weeks will see a sharp increase due to the variant.

He said being diligent around vaccinations and rapid testing, and abiding by the provincial isolation policy, would help reduce stress on the province's health-care system and other essential service workers.

"All those sectors should have contingency plans to manage the work if a significant portion of their staff are off sick, even though the symptoms [of Omicron] are mild and you only have to isolate for five days," Shahab said earlier this week.

Regina Police Service communications spokesperson Elizabeth Popowich provided general information about the organization's plans.

She said currently the police service has fewer than 12 employees with positive COVID-19 tests, though the situation is monitored and discussed every day, and Saskatchewan Health Authority guidelines and recommendations are being followed.

The police force has a pandemic plan, which has been in place for some time. Aspects of the plan, including re-deploying non-patrol sections to frontline response, could be enacted when and if needed, Popowich said.

"We employed that aspect of the plan in late 2020 and into early 2021, when we adopted a dispersed readiness approach with some employees on stand-by, working from home," she said.

Tyler Pidlubny/CBC
Tyler Pidlubny/CBC

The force has not changed who can work from home, but Popowich said discussions are underway in various administrative, civilian and support sections to have fewer people present in the police service's offices in Regina. Popowich said those employees previously worked from home in late 2020 and into early 2021.

Chris Holden, Regina's city manager, said contingencies were also in place to protect the Queen City.

Employees in more specialized areas under the city's responsibility — wastewater, for example — were cohorting and abiding by the health guidelines and recommendations.

Kirk Fraser/CBC
Kirk Fraser/CBC

Holden said staff in some areas were also cross-trained in order to fill in for each other when needed.

In times of absolute need, he said staff would be asked to forego vacation or work overtime hours to ensure the city was providing essential services.

He said the city wasn't quite feeling an impact from Omicron yet.

"What I can say at this point [on Friday] is it's insignificant.… we're not out of line with what we would normally see at this time of year," Holden said.

In terms of working from home, he said Regina has "yo-yo'd" through the pandemic. Staff gradually started returning as measures were lifted last summer, but by the fall things started picking up again on the COVID front.

Holden said it's now up to the discretion of individual department directors to determine what works best for their operations.

The Saskatoon Police Service said that due to case count fluctuations it was unable to provide an accurate picture of the count among its ranks of officers and staff, but that a small percentage of the service was affected by Omicron.

Those cases, the police service's statement said, were due to community transmission of the virus, not workplace transmissions.

Guy Quenneville/CBC
Guy Quenneville/CBC

In the police service's statement, deputy chief Mitch Yuzdepski said a plan was in place to ensure there was no disruption to front-line services. The plan included using other police unit resources to support front-line services where required.

"We have seen an increase in the number of staff off work because of the requirement to self-isolate, however we have not had to activate any of the phases of our business continuity plan at this time," Yuzdepski said.

The police service said it continues to monitor the COVID-19 situation and its impact on the organization daily, though Yuzdepski said the service was confident front-line services wouldn't be negatively impacted.

Courtney Markewich/CBC
Courtney Markewich/CBC

A statement from the City of Saskatoon said measures were in place in its facilities to mitigate the potential spread of COVID in the workplace.

Staff are required to submit either mandatory proof of COVID-19 vaccination or proof of a negative test, and required to complete fit-for-duty forms before attending the workplace.

The statement said masking and physical distancing protocols, along with enhanced cleaning and physical barriers, were in place. In-person meetings were discouraged unless "critical in nature."

"The City of Saskatoon is not currently experiencing any significant staffing challenges," said the statement from Pamela Goulden-McLeod, the director of emergency measures organization.

"We continue to watch and plan for any impact of the Omicron variant on staffing levels by reviewing all business continuity plans to ensure that critical services can continue."

Supplied by Parkland Ambulance
Supplied by Parkland Ambulance

Parkland Ambulance, which services the Prince Albert area, said Friday that one of its 75 employees was out due to a positive COVID-19 test.

Lyle Karasiuk, Parkland's director of public affairs, said the service uses priority screening to determine call priority when asked about contingency plans.

"As an emergency service it's pretty tough to say who gets an ambulance and who doesn't but … if you are not breathing you obviously rate higher for service than a patient coming in from a rural hospital for an elective CT scan," Karasiuk said in an email to CBC News.

"We can start to give priority to emergencies based on acuity and delay diagnostics in consultation with health teams."

He said just five of the service's employees are able to work from home, and they currently are.

Parkland staff are rapid tested each time they start their shift and are encouraged to test at home, reduce their social gatherings and abide by public health orders, messaging and restrictions.

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