Unions say they're disappointed the Saskatchewan government has resorted to using an emergency order to redirect health-care workers amid the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but hasn't widely mandated measures such as masks and a provincially-enforced vaccine passport system.
"If we are in a state of emergency, then we need to act like it," said Tracy Zambory, the president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN).
"This government is putting the bulk of the pandemic on health-care workers and they have other options that they could look at to reduce these numbers," echoed Sandra Seitz, the president of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 5430.
Early in the pandemic, those two unions and three others — Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-West, Saskatchewan Government Employees Union (SGEU) and Health Sciences Association Of Saskatchewan (HSAS) — entered into a letter of understanding (LOU) with the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA). The LOU allowed the health authority to redeploy workers to certain areas, such as hospitals, testing centres and facilities experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak, as the need arose.
That agreement expired on Aug. 8 — about a month after Saskatchewan lifted its provincial statement of emergency and rescinded its public health orders while COVID-19 case numbers were low. Staff returned to their home departments.
Since then, Saskatchewan has been hit by a fourth wave of COVID-19, primarily among the unvaccinated, with the province reporting a record 506 new cases on Tuesday.
CUPE and SUN have said they're not against the idea of "floating" staff, but that the SHA abused the original LOU by keeping redeployed workers in strenuous new environments for too long.
"We're reaping the outcome of that now with people being very burned out, very despondent, anxious and exhausted," Zambory said.
Instead, the unions favoured a different agreement that hewed more closely to their collective agreements by giving workers greater flexibility during redeployments.
On Friday, in response to the surge in hospitalized COVID-19 cases, the Ministry of Health said that if discussions between the SHA and health unions did not result in a new agreement by Monday, the government was prepared to sign a new emergency order to reactive the previous LOU.
The government made good on that threat on Monday, which Zambory and Seitz said happened despite ongoing talks.
"We feel very disrespected," Seitz said.
While the province has slowed down some health services including elective, non-urgent surgeries, more public health measures are also needed to help relieve the hospital stress that prompted the emergency order in the first place, Zambory said. The government announced last week it was bringing back mandatory 10-day isolaton for people infected with COVID-19.
"Patients are receiving care in all of these inappropriate places like ambulance bays and in the hallways. It's like people are flowing in like water out of a fire hose. We need to be fully in a state of emergency — not just something about where workers work and then not have anything else to support that."
In a statement, Premier Moe said his government remains concerned about the significant pressures on the health-care system created by increasing case rates of COVID-19, adding that the surge is driven by the unvaccinated.
Consultations with chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab will continue, Moe said.
"As we have previously stated, enacting additional measures has not been ruled out."