May 18, 2022

As Nova Scotia Health struggles with a record number of people off work due to COVID-19-related protocols, changes are being made to try to keep the system moving.

The changes, which came into effect Friday, will allow certain employees to return to work faster after a positive COVID-19 test and stay on the job even if a member of their household tests positive.

“These changes address the growing staffing crisis in the health-care system while continuing to mitigate the risk of bringing COVID-19 into our facilities,” said Brendan Elliott, a spokesperson for the health authority, in an email.

Almost 800 workers were off the job as of Thursday because they tested positive for COVID-19, were a close contact of a positive case, or were awaiting test results.

The staffing crunch is once again affecting the ability to deliver services, with some surgeries and procedures having to be delayed.

The QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax said Friday that most elective and non-urgent surgeries will be cancelled beginning Monday. The QEII said the measure is necessary due to the increasing number of COVID-19 patients in hospital and a worsening staff shortage.

New protocol for close contacts

As of Friday, employees of Nova Scotia Health with a booster dose who are close contacts of a positive COVID-19 case in their home, but are not positive themselves, will be able to remain at work providing they adhere to certain restrictions.

They include wearing personal protective equipment at all times while in the workplace, wearing a mask at all times unless alone in a room, screening twice daily, and rapid antigen testing at least every 48 hours. 

Previously, workers had to miss three days of work and get a negative test and have no symptoms before returning. That requirement will still apply to workers without a booster dose. 

People who have tested positive for COVID-19 will be able to return to work after seven days off, rather than 10, provided they aren’t displaying symptoms.

System must adapt, says health minister

Public Health and government officials, including Premier Tim Houston, have talked in recent weeks about learning to live with COVID-19 while being mindful that there are still high rates of the disease circulating.

The latest numbers from Public Health on Thursday showed an average of almost 600 new cases a day.

Health Minister Michelle Thompson said that illustrates why it’s important for people to use masks and keep personal circles small whenever possible, even though public health restrictions have been removed.

As people try to learn to live with COVID-19, the minister said the health-care system also needs to adapt so patients aren’t becoming sicker as they await treatment for other issues.

Doctors have previously expressed concerns about the effect of system interruptions on cancer patients, for example, some of whom had treatment postponed only to have their condition worsen by the time they could be treated.

“It’s very difficult when there are impediments to do your job as a health-care worker,” said Thompson, who worked as a registered nurse and long-term care administrator before entering politics.

“It is a balance. We want to be supportive of health-care workers and we want to get Nova Scotians the care they need in a timely fashion, and this is part of us transitioning to a different phase of the pandemic.”

‘An important step’

Thompson said it remains to be seen what effect the change in protocols will have, although she expects it will help boost a workforce that’s struggling to keep up with demand.

“We do feel that it’s an important step in order for us to keep things moving in the health-care system,” she said in an interview at Province House.

A spokesperson for the IWK Health Centre said there are no changes to back-to-work protocols for workers there. As of Thursday, there were 157 people off work at the Halifax children’s hospital.

The spokesperson said the hospital would continue to balance the best ways to maintain clinical services with safety for patients, families and health-care workers.

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