SHA employees struggle with overtime, understaffed labs due to increased COVID-19 testing

·5 min read

Some Saskatchewan frontline health workers are saying healthcare systems like laboratories are reaching a breaking point due to increased COVID-19 testing.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) West, which represents Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) employees, recently wrote an open letter to Premier Scott Moe and other ministries. The union stated that its members are struggling to keep up with testing initiatives and demands.

Premier Moe previously announced he wants daily capacity for testing in the province to be at 4,000.

In a survey, SEIU-West found that 42 per cent of its SHA members found their lab to be short-staffed at least once per week. Sixty-seven per cent said they worked overtime hours at least once a week.

Barbara Cape, president of SEIU-West, says testing and monitoring are key for the province to manage the pandemic. She says the union and its members fully embrace that notion.

"I think the challenge that we have as a province and as a health care system is the fact that we are woefully unprepared for that number of tests. For the very simple fact that we don't have the human capacity — the people who analyze the specimens, collect them, do the actual testing to determine if a specimen has COVID, and then provide that information to the doctors who diagnose," Cape said.

Drive-thru COVID-19 testing without referral or appointment is now available in Saskatoon and Regina. Anyone who wants to get tested can. There is also targeted testing work being done in schools across the province.

In a statement to CBC, the SHA said that to date, the highest number of COVID-19 tests performed in a single day is 2,129.

Cape says SHA employees do not have enough physical space or equipment to do the work. She says the SHA has also lost more than 100 positions in the last five to six years in the lab disciplines.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

Cape says the union is also aware that people are still going for testing in rural communities throughout the province.

"We have combined lab and X-ray techs who don't have enough staff in our smaller regional hospitals or rural communities. We don't have the updated equipment or it breaks down, and we simply don't have capacity to run through that many tests," Cape said.

"So we're down staff already in the medical laboratory technologist classification. We're down staff in the combined lab and X-ray techs. We are down medical laboratory assistants."

Cape says that on top of pandemic needs, health care workers are trying to manage the regular work of blood tests, cancer tests, tests related to pregnancy and maternity, diabetes tests and more.

"While I understand and our members certainly understand the prioritizing of pandemic and COVID tests, we were short staffed before the pandemic. You had this as a crisis point. And we are falling even further behind the eight ball."

Trevor Bothorel/Radio-Canada
Trevor Bothorel/Radio-Canada

Dr. Joseph Blondeau, the provincial lead for clinical microbiology with the SHA, says he is glad the union's concerns have been expressed in an open letter.

"We do have pressures within laboratory medicine, and that's where I practice. We are facing some shortages, but the province has come forward and has approved a number of new positions that we're actively trying to recruit to right now," Blondeau said.

"What will end up happening going forward is that we will reallocate some of our human resources. So we will move some of our trained individuals, in order to meet that increased testing demands, from other services that we provide, which we would prioritise as being less critical at this point in time."

Long lines in Saskatoon

The strain is not just felt by SHA employees. Some Saskatoon residents have complained about massive lines and waiting times at drive-thru testing stations.

Kristen Mickelson, a single mother, waited in a drive-thu testing line for three hours in Saskatoon. Her daughter has been feeling sick.

They were 15 cars away from getting into the drive-thru when they were told the car in front of them would be the last. Mickelson says this happened at 6 p.m. CST. Online information says the drive-thru was supposed to be open until 7:15 p.m. "It was a very awful, awful experience. [My daughter] has a throat problem as it is, but before her family doctor will see her, the protocol is that she needs to go get tested before she can go in. Before we can see our family doctor and go back to school. We have to get this done," said Mickelson.

Mickelson says she had to leave work early to take her daughter to get tested, and was very frustrated. She says the line for testing was wrapped around the block.

SHA response

The SHA said in a statement it plans to expand laboratory testing capacity by adding more than 50 full-time equivalents to laboratories in Saskatoon and Regina combined.

"This includes additional technologists, laboratory assistants and laboratory scientists," SHA said in the statement.

"The SHA recognizes that technologist and assistant positions are currently considered hard to recruit. While the goal is to fill those specific positions to ensure testing capacity goals are met, the SHA will explore other options for classifications if the initial recruitment for the new positions is not successful."