OCHU/CUPE SEIU- webTwo of Ontario’s largest health care unions are asking the provincial government to rescind a new pandemic guidance order they believe creates an unacceptable level of risk for hospital patients, long-term care residents and health care staff by enabling hospitals and long-term care employers to order potentially sick or still infectious health care workers with COVID-19 back to work.

CUPE’s Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU-CUPE) and SEIU Healthcare are concerned that hospitals and long-term care homes are using the guidance order to deal with staffing shortages, which is putting patients, residents and other health care staff at greater risk of infection.

“Shortening the isolation period for health care workers is misguided and dangerous,” says Michael Hurley president of OCHU the hospital division of CUPE in Ontario. “Forcing a health care worker back to work while sick or infectious with COVID-19 imperils the health and safety of patients and of other health care staff. The risk of infection is not eliminated by assigning COVID-19 positive employees to work with COVID-19 positive patients. The risk of re-infection remains, especially with different variants in play. We call on the government to suspend this practice immediately. Hundreds of patients have died already of preventable COVID infection in our hospitals and this practice will only increase such infections.”

OCHU-CUPE and SEIU have sent a strongly worded letter (https://bit.ly/OCHU220124) to Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Health Minister, Christine Elliott and Dr. Kieran Moore, Chief Medical Officer of Health outlining the potential harm to Ontarians under a provincial guidance document from January 13 “COVID-19 Interim Guidance: Omicron Surge Management of Critical Staffing Shortages in Highest Risk Setting.”

The guidance is primarily premised on accepting that the Omicron variant has a reduced period of infection – down to five days from ten. However, there is a growing body of evidence showing that Omicron’s infectious period is longer than five days, leading to calls from respected epidemiologists and virologists for Ontario to return to the previous 10-day isolation policy.

“Premier Ford has been governing by polls instead of governing by evidence. The result has been putting people at risk by unnecessarily exposing them to Omicron, and as we’ve seen, more Ontarians have died from COVID-19 in January than in any of the past twelve months,” says Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare. “Instead of sending sick workers into our hospitals to care for sick patients, we’re urging Premier Ford and his government to sit down with us to immediately implement our health human resource action plan.”

Some Ontario hospitals have already announced plans to proceed with an early return to work program without having first pursued all available alternatives such as offering enhanced premium pay, redeploying staff from other work, or calling for assistance from the military.

OCHU-CUPE and SEIU say the guidance also fails to recommend PPE appropriate to the situation of extreme risk that early return of COVID-positive staff would bring into a hospital or long-term care home. This would include a recommendation that only elastomeric respirators or fit-tested N95 respirators be used.

The unions charge that employers that follow the guidance would be in breach of fundamental obligations under the province’s Occupational Health and Safety Act if they were to require health staff to return to work while sick and/or infectious with COVID. Breaches of the Act would also occur should hospitals and long-term care homes begin implementing any early return to work plan without having first explored all reasonable alternatives, and without adequate protections and precautions, including PPE. 

OCHU-CUPE, SEIU Healthcare and the unions’ member locals “will be considering every legal avenue at our disposal, including under OHSA, through the grievance process, and through the courts, to ensure the safety of our members, hospital patients, and by extension, the broader public,” they warned.