March 6, 2022

COVID-19-positive health-care workers still working? A hint at what that could look like in B.C.

It was a short comment at the end of a news conference, but B.C.’s top doctor provided a hint at what health-care workers could do if the province asks them to continue working while COVID-19-positive.

Dr. Bonnie Henry said previously it’s an option officials are considering, but said it would only be used as a last resort.

It’s an idea already in practice in Quebec and being considered in several other provinces as the Omicron variant spreads across Canada, leading to shortages of workers in all fields including health care.

Last week, Henry said it’s a concern felt in B.C., prompting public health officials to explore options including asking workers with very mild or asymptomatic cases to return to work ahead of the designated isolation period.

Until Tuesday, it was unclear what that system could look like, but a brief comment gave those workers an idea of what the policy could look like, if put into place.

She was asked what would happen if hospitals in B.C. reach a breaking point.

“We’ve been looking at this for some time. It is part of our pandemic planning scenarios – how to maximize the workforce – so one of the big things is making sure everybody’s vaccinated,” Henry said.

“That was an important key point in trying to preserve our healthy health-care workers.”

Additionally, she and her team have been looking at the period of time required for isolation, who can do specific jobs for backfill purposes, maximizing hours (including asking people to come back from holidays) and more, she said.

Some public health activities have been stopped for the time being as resources are shifted to the pandemic response, and surgeries have been delayed when possible, she added to the list.

“There’s a whole series of measures we’re taking, of looking at our health human resources, recognizing that we’ve been stretched… to the limit and beyond.”

She said the planning is ongoing and will continue to be for some time, but among those plans is what would happen if workers who’ve tested positive for the disease are needed in their jobs.

As for what that would look like, she didn’t get into much detail, but said, “We’d only want them to work with COVID patients, for example, so that we wouldn’t increase risk elsewhere in a facility.”

The protocols for how that would happen are already developed, she said.

As the answer was in response to the final question allowed at Tuesday’s news conference, no further questions were asked about those protocols.

Last week, when Henry spoke about it a bit more, she said that no one would be expected to work if they’re sick with COVID-19 or anything else, as it’s a risk to others as well as themselves.

“But there are certain settings where we need to make sure that we have that balancing of continuity of care; health-care workers are one.” 

She said there might also be plans to move workers around as needed, or to substitute workers in some cases.

While some may support the idea, others spoke out last week against it. The B.C. Nurses’ Union told CTV News the fact that it was even being considered was shocking to some of its members.

“I understand that things are critical but introducing COVID into a worksite is something that I actually cannot comprehend,” interim vice-president Danette Thompson said in an interview Thursday

Still, she said she was very worried about staffing levels heading into the new year, saying nurses currently see more than double the number of patients they normally would, outside of the pandemic.

But a North Shore doctor said he didn’t understand why some were surprised by the idea.

“What alternative would people propose? We don’t have backup staff waiting in the wings. There is no B team,” Dr. Kevin McLeod wrote on Twitter.

With files from CTV News Vancouver’s Alyse Kotyk and Alissa Thibault

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