Ontario long-term care homes see staff absences of 20 to 30 per cent amid outbreaks

Ontario long-term care homes are dealing with more virus outbreaks and staff absences of between 20 and 30 per cent in some areas hard hit by COVID-19, the minister responsible for the sector said Thursday.

Rod Phillips said outbreaks were reported in 186 homes — nearly 30 per cent of all those in province — across 30 of the province’s 34 public health units as of Thursday. With the Omicron variant continuing to drive cases at record levels, Phillips said he expects the number of long-term care outbreaks to rise.

He said his ministry is in touch with homes struggling with staffing — an issue seen in sectors across Canada as the Omicron variant forces people into isolation.

“Like every other workplace, we are seeing some of the pressures,” Phillips said during a virtual news conference about a local jobs program.

“Staffing in long-term care remains a concern, it’s an area of focus, and it’s an area that we’re in daily contact with individual homes (about).”

Phillips’ office did not immediately provide a specific number of how many additional staff were being deployed to help hard-hit homes, or where absences were causing the most acute problems.

The president of a union representing long-term care workers in the province also addressed the staffing problem at another news conference on Thursday, describing desperate measures being taken to rally workers.

“Because Ontario failed to plan, more than 1,000 nursing home staff are off sick right now, causing nursing homes to desperately recruit from fast food chains,” said Sharleen Stewart, president of the SEIU Healthcare union.

She said the homes have asked fast food workers to fill in for kitchen staff who can’t work.

Phillips said some relief has been available from additional funding for staff made available in the fall, but noted that staff absences are increasing as Omicron spreads.

Phillips added that the long-term care sector is being affected differently than hospitals, which are dealing with surging patient admissions every day while short-staffed due to virus exposures and infections.

“In the case of long-term care, we’re able to limit access to protect the residents and protect the staff,” he said.

Last month the province put limits on visitors to long-term care homes to reduce the risk of virus exposure amid Omicron’s spread.

Only two designated caregivers per resident are now allowed to visit, while all other general visits have been paused indefinitely and residents can’t leave for social reasons. There are exceptions for palliative visits.

Full COVID-19 vaccinations with two completed doses became mandatory for staff and volunteers starting last month and similar rules are being rolled out for visitors.

Long-term care residents became eligible for booster vaccine doses last year.

Fourth doses will also be made available to long-term care residents, the province recently announced. The demographic is considered especially vulnerable to the virus due to their advanced age, underlying health conditions and congregate living situation.

Long-term care residents represent nearly 40 per cent of the province’s total deaths from COVID-19. Most of the 4,040 deaths occurred during the first two waves of the pandemic before vaccines were administered, though the highly contagious Omicron variant has raised new fears about a resurgence of widespread outbreaks.

Toronto health board chair Joe Cressy said on Twitter that a fourth dose drive would begin Thursday in the city’s 10 municipally run long-term care homes.

“We know vaccines are effective in preventing severe harm, and urgent work continues to bring vaccines to those most vulnerable,” he wrote.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2021.

— With files from Nicole Thompson

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