Alberta Health Services is coming up with contingency plans in light of a growing number of sick health care workers. (Advocate file photo)

Alberta Health Services is coming up with contingency plans in light of a growing number of sick health care workers. (Advocate file photo)

AHS expects to grapple with growing sickness among health care workers

Staff re-deployment, more delayed procedures are being considered

With thousands of health workers calling in sick across the country, Alberta Health Services is bracing — and planning— for increased staffing pressures from the Omicron variant.

Shifting some local health care staff members to areas of highest priority is being considered. AHS is also exploring alternate models of care, and prioritizing healthcare workers for COVID-19 testing to maximize the available workforce.

“Other jurisdictions have seen increased number of healthcare workers on sick days as a result of Omicron. We are beginning to see early potential signs of this as well,” stated an AHS spokesperson on Tuesday.

Although the December absentee rate among AHS workers was similar to last year’s at about 5.5 per cent, “we anticipate we will see increased sick rates in the days ahead as Omicron spread continues,” the spokesperson added.

While the flu-like effects of Omicron are milder than those caused by the Delta version of the virus, this latest mutation is much more transmissible, so the number of hospitalizations are still expected to rise.

Ontario’s health care system is already reporting strain, with hundreds of staff members calling in sick every day. Hospitals and clinics in that province are reacting by further delaying procedures unrelated to COVID-19 to ensure workers can be redeployed to areas of highest need.

Atlantic Canada is also feeling the impact, with more than 600 health workers in Nova Scotia alone calling in sick. This is fuelling concerns that as many as 30 per cent of staff at hospitals and health facilities could soon be out of commission.

To prevent hospital under-staffing in Quebec, that province’s health minister recently announced that some workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 or come in close contact with confirmed cases may remain on the job to protect hospital capacity. Quebec is planning to extend this policy to all essential workers.

So far, the situation is not as dire in Alberta. But “AHS is monitoring and planning for all eventualities to ensure we can continue to care for patients and keep Albertans safe,” said the Alberta Health Services spokesperson.

“With Omicron cases continuing to rise in the province, we have been reviewing and refining our capacity plans in Red Deer and across the (Central) zone so that we can respond at a moment’s notice to increased demands,” she added.

“While we hope that they aren’t needed, we are prepared to implement a number of measures, if necessary, in response to increased staff illness and absences as they may need time away to care for loved ones or to self-isolate.”

Plans include re-deploying staff to areas of highest priority, using alternative models of care, and prioritizing health-care workers for COVID-19 testing.”If required, we have plans in place to temporarily reduce some services and surgeries if it becomes necessary in order to redeploy staff to areas of highest need,” said the AHS spokesperson.

“Alberta Health Services continues to do everything it can to ensure we have resources — including staffing — in place to respond to increased pressures on the healthcare system due to COVID-19.”

Recruitment efforts are also ongoing to help maintain and stabilize staffing levels. “We are working to fill full and part-time vacancies and our teams are moving through the hiring process as quickly as possible, especially in critical areas.”

Alberta Health Services is urging central Albertans to get vaccinated — including getting the third booster shot. “The best way to protect hospitals is for people to get immunized and to follow public health guidelines and restrictions. This includes staying home when sick and wearing a mask” in public.

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