Seniors are suffering because of a shortage of nursing home workers, says the president of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions.
Meals are getting missed, residents aren't receiving their weekly baths, and they're risking injury by trying to climb out of bed without assistance, Sharon Teare said Monday.
They're also dying alone.
Teare said one home in Fredericton has three residents in palliative care. With staffing levels at 50 per cent, she said, "those residents are dying alone that are in palliative because they do not have the hands to ensure that palliative measures are applied."
In a news conference over Zoom, Teare said staffing and retention issues were at "crisis" levels before the pandemic.
"Now we're at a point where retention and recruitment is crippling the sector, and it can no longer function."
She said employees are working double and triple shifts, and they're getting burned out.
Some are leaving the profession completely, and others are retiring.
Teare said she heard an example recently of a worker who retired before she was eligible and "left 25 years of severance on the table because her heart was breaking."
"She couldn't do it anymore. She couldn't rest her head on the pillow, knowing that these residents were just now being housed. There is no longer a 'home' in nursing homes. We're just struggling to house our seniors."
Teare called on Premier Blaine Higgs to implement an immediate $4-per-hour wage hike for all nursing home workers.
Everyone is worried to death that it's going to get in. - Michael Keating
CUPE says the money is already there. It was part of a $9 billion commitment by the federal government to help address the shortfalls in the long-term-care sector "that were exposed by the pandemic," said a news release from the union.
"This includes a 25$ per-hour minimum wage for personal support workers (PSWs) across Canada. On average, CUPE nursing home workers in New Brunswick earn 21$ per hour, which is among the lowest wages in this sector in the country."
Teare said the federal government has done its part.
"What is Higgs waiting for? We say it's about time Higgs did his part."
Teare said union members in Edmundston "sounded the alarm" last week, saying residents were only getting 1.8 hours of daily, hands-on care.
Under the Nursing Homes Act, residents are guaranteed six hours a day, said Teare.
"Seniors are going without baths for whole weeks, they stay in bed all day and are even dying alone, because of serious short staffing. It's getting worse as months go by," she said.
Union leaders drafted a "letter of agreement" — all filled out and ready to be inserted into the collective agreement — it's just missing the premier's signature.
The Premier's Office was asked for comment, but the emailed response sent on Monday afternoon didn't specify whether the wage demand is being considered. It did say that a six-year agreement adopted in 2019 includes a 5.5 per cent wage increase in the first four years, and two per cent increase in years five and six.
31 cases at Sackville home
Nursing homes across the province are feeling the effects of the fourth wave of COVID-19 particularly hard. At least 10 of them have positive cases.
The Drew Nursing home in Sackville is particularly hard hit. In a letter to families on Sunday, the 118-bed home confirmed 31 positive cases — 24 residents and seven employees — as of Sunday. Two residents have died in recent days.
That brings the total to three deaths in New Brunswick nursing homes in the last week, said Michael Keating, the interim executive director of the New Brunswick Association of Nursing Homes.
"Everybody's on edge," said Keating. "Everyone is worried to death that it's going to get in."
He said one of the biggest challenges is that when an outbreak is declared, almost 30 per cent of employees don't come to work — either they're sick or worried about getting sick, "but that puts additional pressure on the administration and the other workers as well."
Keating said that 30 per cent loss is consistent across the country.
The Drew Nursing Home has been short-staffed, according to the letter to families. The letter says the provincial outbreak management team, known as PROMT, extramural staff, retired nurses, "as well as several employees from other homes are assisting our staff with this outbreak."
The Department of Social Development has also assigned social workers to the Drew to help residents connect with families through FaceTime and telephone calls. The home has also applied for assistance from the Red Cross. The letter says the application was approved and "this service will start within the coming days."
Natalie Crossman's 79-year-old father, Brian Estabrooks, is a resident of the Drew Nursing home.
While the last couple of weeks have been hard on her father, she has nothing but praise for the staff. She said they've been "angels" under the circumstances.
"All we can do is support the staff through this because regardless of how this started, they're living it every day," said Crossman.
She said staff has managed to set up video calls with her father while in-person visits are on hold. She said they're doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.
Nearly all residents fully vaccinated
In the case of Drew, Keating said, all residents were fully vaccinated.
But he insists that the numbers still support the effectiveness of vaccines. Before vaccines, and the delta variant, he said, nursing homes could expect to lose as many as one-third of their residents in an outbreak.
In the last two weeks, he said, there have been 30 cases and only three deaths, suggesting a 90 per cent effectiveness rate.
Keating said the vaccination rate among New Brunswick nursing home residents is "well above 95 per cent."