How many health-care workers are self-isolating due to COVID-19? Unions have no reliable count

By | April 4, 2020

Health-care unions say they are struggling to keep track of the number of frontline workers in COVID-19-related isolation in Manitoba but it is possible several hundred are off the job right now.

The province’s public health officials do not report the number of health-care professionals required to stay home and the unions that represent health-care workers in the province cite privacy of health information and a lack of a strict reporting process in the province as the primary reasons for the data shortfall.

Several positive test results have been confirmed by the province in at least some health-care institutions in Winnipeg and the Interlake, including city hospitals and nursing homes, a Selkirk hospital and a personal care home in Gimli.

The Manitoba Nurses Union confirmed at least 60 nurses from facilities in Manitoba are self-isolating due to exposure.

MNU president Darlene Jackson said that total involves about 40 nurses from Health Sciences Centre, 14 from Grace Hospital and six or seven from Selkirk Regional Health Centre. It does not reflect the nurses working at long-term care facilities throughout the city and province.

“There could be more, we just haven’t heard that yet,” Jackson said, adding this snapshot is based on information provided to them directly from the 12,000 licensed nurses that make up its membership or through Shared Health Manitoba.

As of April 4, there were 194 identified cases of COVID-19 in Manitoba. Ten people are in hospital, with six of them in intensive care. (Jacques Marcoux/CBC)

Jackson said the union has requested the province notifies it when its nursing staff test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 but that process has not yet been granted.

“We would like to be out there doing followup with nurses, ensuring that their benefits are flowing, ensure that they’re getting paid and that what needs to be done for them is done,” she said.

“Any loss out of our system, especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic happening, is a huge loss. It’s a big hit to health care.”

‘This is a patient safety issue’

Jackson also raised concern about nurses being told by employers to return to work before completing 14 days in isolation, without being tested, as long as they are not showing any symptoms, such as fever, cough or respiratory issues.

“That’s very worrying,” she said. “Evidence is very clear that you don’t have to be symptomatic to have the virus and to be shedding the virus.”

MNU wants to see nurses follow through the full two weeks regardless of symptoms.

“It’s no different for a health-care provider,” Jackson said. “This is a patient safety issue and we need to stop looking at it as a workforce issue,” she said.

‘Hundreds’ off work, in isolation

Doctors Manitoba does not keep track of how many of its members are in isolation.

Communications director Keir Johnson said the association — which advocates on behalf of 3,000 practising and retired physicians, medical students and residents — would probably only find out about cases if individual physicians voluntarily offered their personal health information.

A spokesperson from the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union said it cannot provide a number and does not have a mechanism to get it.

Bernice Pontanilla of Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals, which represents about 6,500 people across 160 disciplines, said the number of its members in isolation remains at 40. Of those, nine are from St. Boniface Hospital and the remainder are from the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg.

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Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents more than 18,000 support workers such as health-care aides, housekeepers and unit clerks. Health-care coordinator Shannon McAteer said the union does not currently have information available about how many members are in isolation, though data has been requested from employers and local units.

“We’d like to know exactly how our members are being affected. We know certainly that the mood is people are very stressed and very anxious,” she said, adding that many who continue to work are being redeployed to do similar duties in different areas.

“They’re concerned about getting it, they’re concerned about spreading it to their patients, their residents and their families,” she said.

Anecdotally, McAteer estimated “hundreds” of Winnipeg workers may be self-isolating right now but the employers have not advised her of a staffing crisis.

“I don’t know how many have gone back to work or how many haven’t gone back to work because it changes, well, quite frankly, it changes hourly, not just daily,” she said.

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