People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site in Montreal, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing and vaccination site in Montreal, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Staffing challenges from surging COVID-19 cases affecting public services

Quebec health officials reported another 1,953 COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday

Public sectors across the country are facing staff shortages as Canada continues to face record-breaking COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations related to the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said Thursday that about 20,000 health-care workers were off because they had tested positive or been exposed to the virus. The government was working with unions to find more staff to care for roughly 2,500 COVID-19 patients, he added.

Health officials reported another 1,953 COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday, a rise of almost 12 per cent compared with a day earlier. More than 400 patients had entered a hospital in the past 24 hours and 212 were discharged. Officials said there were 207 patients in intensive care, an increase of 16.

Also in Quebec, four federal prisons were “very close” to experiencing staff shortages as more workers tested positive for COVID-19.

“We’re very close to it but we’re not there yet. And I hope we won’t go there,” said Mario Guilmette, Quebec region vice-president for the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

Guilmette said the Correctional Service of Canada was working on a protocol to be used if the province’s federal prisons were short of staff. If the protocol is brought in, it means workers who are considered close contacts of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 could be asked to come back to work after isolating for eight days instead of 10.

Correctional Service spokeswoman Marie Pier Lecuyer said in a statement that the agency has not had to bring in any staff who have tested positive back to work before they have fully recovered.

In Ontario, outbreaks in long-term care homes were leading to staff absences of between 20 and 30 per cent in some areas.

Long-Term Care Minister Rod Phillips said there were outbreaks Thursday at 186 homes in 30 of Ontario’s 34 public health units.

He said his ministry was in touch with homes struggling with staffing as the Omicron variant forced people into isolation.

“Staffing in long-term care remains a concern,” Phillips said during a virtual news conference about a local jobs program. “It’s an area that we’re in daily contact with individual homes (about).”

The minister’s office did not immediately provide a specific number of how many additional workers were being deployed to help hard-hit homes.

The president of a union representing long-term care workers in the province spoke about 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 SEIU Healthcare.

Homes have asked fast-food workers to fill in for kitchen staff who can’t work, she said.

Isolation due to surging cases of the Omicron variant was also putting pressure on some police and transit services.

Winnipeg Transit was using spare operators and overtime to cover shifts, but the city said some routes would still be affected.

“Unfortunately, we have not been able to cover all shifts. To mitigate impact to the overall service, we’ve had to cancel some runs,” said Jason Shaw, manager for the City of Winnipeg’s emergency operations centre.

Ontario’s GO Transit announced this week a temporary reduction in train and bus service in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton regions was set to begin within days due to staff shortages.

With 170 personnel on leave related to COVID-19, the Winnipeg Police Service declared an internal state of emergency Wednesday. The Edmonton and Calgary police services warned of staffing challenges after a growing number of staff tested positive or were in isolation.

—Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

RELATED: COVID-19 test demands lead to threats against B.C. health staff

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