The union representing workers at LifeLabs in British Columbia says the temporary location of nearly a dozen labs is calling for better protection for frontline workers, amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Stephanie Smith, president of the B.C. Public Employees Union, said LifeLabs was not experiencing a staffing “crisis”, which could be at least partially mitigated with better protective equipment for workers.
“When we saw Omicron coming, we were saying where are the N95 masks for members, bringing back the capacity limits,” she said.
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“We need to prevent workers from getting sick rather than trying to deal with an emergency with understaffed, life laboratories being a prime example of this, where we have to adjust and close our working hours.”
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LifeLabs announced Wednesday that it will close 11 patient service centers, mostly in southwest British Columbia, and reduce operating hours at five other centers due to “the spread of Omicon and related protocols that have resulted in severe impacts on staff.”
The company’s website lists several safety protocols specific to COVID-19, including health screening, concealment and distancing requirements for customers, a mandatory vaccine policy for employees, requirements for personal protective equipment for employees that include masks while speaking with customers and additional personal protective equipment “such as protective gear.” Eyes, gloves and isolation gowns are where there are dangers.”
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Smith said the work at LifeLabs, which includes COVID-related testing as well as critical daily medical tests for thousands of British-Colombians, is so important that more needs to be done.
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“If you’re facing the public and working, you should get an N95 or a KN95 mask,” she said. “We want to see priority for essential workers for testing and access to vaccine boosters.”
LifeLabs isn’t alone in facing an employment crunch as Omicron drives case numbers to record levels, and British Columbia health officials have already thought about the possibility of allowing some healthcare workers to return to work early after testing positive for COVID-19.
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Kristen Nielsen, chief executive of the Canadian Center for Medical Laboratory Sciences, said health care facilities across the province are grappling with critical staffing levels.
“What we’re seeing is the idea that the health care system can be removed from the inside out, which means no staff. And you see it,” she told Global News.
Labs across the country have known for years, Nielsen said, that they are facing a staffing crisis, as the “young” workforce begins to retire.
BC has been warned about this problem multiple times, including in its 2018 human resources plan, which found that 26 percent of the current workforce of medical laboratory assistants and 42 percent of the current workforce of medical laboratory technicians could retire in within five years.
Nielsen said the COVID-19 crisis, which has added an enormous burden along with high levels of stress and burnout for lab workers, has exacerbated this problem.
“We need an additional 400 people per year across Canada to graduate over the next decade. This means we have an additional 4,000 people to meet current demands.
“This is before the emergence of COVID.”
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In British Columbia, Nielsen said there are only two programs graduating technologists and three graduating assistants.
As the BCIT technologist program looks to expand, Nielsen said there is a shortage of clinical placements, primarily internships, for more students.
“We have called for investment in BC for local supply, as well as appropriate qualification methods for foreigners trained for at least ten years,” she said.
Meanwhile, LifeLabs said it is redeploying staff from closed labs to nearby central sites, and that patients will be redirected to a facility that can serve them.
The company says it continues to monitor the employment status and will provide an update in the next two to three weeks.
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