British Columbia’s top doctor isn’t ruling out allowing COVID-19-positive workers to return to the job, as the province’s health-care system strains under the latest wave of the pandemic.
Quebec announced Tuesday that it would allow some infected workers to return as it grapples with thousands of staff calling in sick amid a surge in both new case numbers and hospitalizations.
Manitoba and Ontario have both said they’re looking at similar measures, while Alberta has allowed unvaccinated health-care workers back on the job, provided they undergo regular testing.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said officials in B.C. were looking at the possibility of allowing some health-care workers with mild symptoms to return to the job, if necessary.
“That is something we have had preliminary plans for but we’re working with the occupational health and safety folk, to make sure we have those criteria identified for health-care workers, and making sure we also have plans to be able to substitute other workers and move workers around as needed,” Henry said.
“Obviously if someone is sick, whether it’s with COVID or any other illness, we don’t want them in a workplace setting because it is a risk to others, but there are certain settings where we need to make sure we have that balancing of continuity of care.”
Henry said the province was still examining what criteria would allow the workers back on the job, but was looking at cases, involving mild or no symptoms, that would allow them to work safely.
Under the Quebec model, staff are to be looked at on a case-by-case basis, with the possibility of a shortened isolation period for staff who test positive, depending on the type of exposure, the results of testing and their vaccination status.
“If a health-care worker needs to isolate, we want to make sure they are isolating for the least amount of time possible where they wouldn’t be at risk of infecting people, and we are seeing that the guidelines are changing around the world,” Vancouver physician Dr. Birinder Narang said.
If B.C. were to adopt such a system, Narang said it should take into account test results, symptoms and high-quality masking to minimize any post-isolation risk.
The B.C. Nurses’ Union says it’s in talks with the province about the issue, but expressed concern about sending its members back to work before they’ve fully recovered from illness.
“Why would we require a nurse who is sick and not feeling well to go to work? She needs to be given time, or he, to heal and to recuperate,” BCNU interim vice-president Danette Thomsen said.
Thomsen said there is no question that hospitals are short-staffed around B.C., but said the province should be taking more steps to prevent workers from getting sick in the first place, such as enforcing vaccine passports at health-care facilities and providing all nurses with N95-rated masks.
Despite the surge in new cases in B.C., hospitalization numbers have remained relatively steady so far.
Henry said Wednesday that early evidence from around the world suggests fewer vaccinated people who contract the Omicron variant are becoming severely ill, but that there was still not enough evidence to be sure.
She said the province was closely monitoring Quebec, which has seen its hospitalization numbers climb rapidly.
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