Unions are calling for the Ontario government to reverse a pandemic policy that allows hospital workers to return to work while infected with COVID-19 if a facility’s staffing situation becomes dire.
“We believe that this whole concept is a dangerous threat to the well-being of hospital patients and to those hospital staff who are healthy,” Michael Hurley with the Canadian Union of Public Employees said at a news conference on Thursday.
“We’re asking the province to reconsider and to scrap this policy and to look at the alternatives.”
SEIU Healthcare and CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions, which together represent approximately 100,000 health-care workers at hospitals and long-term care homes, wrote to the premier, health minister and chief medical officer of health this week outlining their concerns.
The new provincial direction, issued this month in light of unprecedented strain on the health system from the highly transmissible Omicron variant, says health-care employees can come back to work with the virus to deal with staffing shortages.
The guidance suggests people closer to the end of their isolation period should come back to work first and be limited to working with COVID-19-positive patients. In the most extreme cases, it says people can return to work earlier than seven days after their exposure to the virus if symptoms have been improving for 24 hours.
Isolation period shortened
Ontario has shortened the recommended isolation period post-infection to five days, but unions have taken issue with that policy change, too.
In their letter to Ontario officials, they point out that Canada’s chief public health officer has publicly said Omicron does not appear to have a shorter infectious period than other COVID-19 variants, and people can remain infectious for 10 days after they develop symptoms.
The unions argue that bringing people back to work who still have COVID-19 could threaten the health of patients, their uninfected colleagues and “the employee themselves, by depriving them of the opportunity to recover from what can be a dangerous and deadly infection.”
They also contend in their letter that only allowing sick workers to work with COVID-19-positive patients isn’t necessarily safe because people may be infected with different variants of the virus.
As alternatives, the unions want the province to look at options such as offering financial incentives for healthy employees to work longer, redeploying staff or seeking support from the military.
At Thursday’s news conference, Hurley said some hospitals have advised unions that they are considering implementing the policy. SEIU president Sharleen Stewart said union members have reported they are already working with COVID-19-positive co-workers.
“They’re worried about working beside those who are still contagious,” she said.
A spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott said Ontario shortened its isolation rules in line with other jurisdictions.
Alexandra Hilkene said people will be allowed back to work earlier than seven days after an infection to work with COVID-19-positive patients if the staffing situation is “critical.”
“It is the responsibility of the organization implementing this guidance to determine what staffing option to use under their current staffing shortage circumstances,” Hilkene said.
“This balances the need to ensure appropriate staffing levels while protecting both patients and workers.”
Health, safety protocols in place
In Sudbury, a spokesperson for Health Sciences North said any health-care worker who tests positive for COVID-19 must self-isolate for 10 days from the onset of symptoms, and can only return to work following clearance from the hospital’s occupational health and safety team.
“If a health-care worker on self-isolation is asymptomatic, fully vaccinated and tests negative on a PCR test, they may be deemed critical to operations and a return to work may be considered,” the emailed statement to CBC reads.
The worker would then need to follow strict protocols at work, including daily rapid antigen testing and self-isolation during eating breaks.