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Residents and staff wave to family and friends who came out to show support of those in the McKenzie Towne Long Term Care centre, where there are 35 confirmed COVID-19 cases, in Calgary, Alta., on April 2, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

In Ontario’s Bruce County, librarians are being asked to trade checking out books for checking temperatures at the doors of nursing homes.

The county located along the shore of Lake Huron has offered library and museum workers the opportunity to keep earning their full salaries during the pandemic shutdown if they are willing to serve meals, clean bed pans and help residents with activities at two publicly owned long-term care homes.

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Only seven of 54 workers have accepted the offer, even though COVID-19 has not been detected in either home.

Bruce County’s effort to turn librarians into nursing-home aides is just one example of the ways governments and the owners of long-term care and retirement facilities are scrambling to find extra staff as the new coronavirus sweeps through homes for seniors, sickening some front-line caregivers and frightening others away.

In Quebec, the provincial government announced $287-million in funding on Thursday to offer a $4-an-hour raise to personal support workers in seniors’ homes and bonuses to other front-line staff fighting the epidemic.

In British Columbia, the provincial health officer has taken control of staffing at nursing homes in the Vancouver area for six months to guarantee equal pay to workers and ensure they don’t split their time between multiple facilities.

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There was a severe shortage of personal support workers – the aides who bathe, change and feed elderly residents – even before the coronavirus hit nursing homes, with some employers offering benefits for part-time staff or $1,000 retention bonuses to help attract workers to care for the country’s aging population.

Now the pandemic has intensified the staffing crisis, said Heather Maxwell, chief executive officer of Maxwell Management Group, a health-care recruitment firm trying to fill hundreds of openings in seniors’ facilities across the country.

“It’s been a challenge for a while, to be honest with you. [COVID-19] certainly has put an extra stresser on the system,” she said.

In Ontario, five groups representing long-term care and resident organizations released a joint letter this week warning the sector is facing the potential loss of half of its front-line work force during the pandemic.

“Despite the heroic efforts of dedicated staff, a severely short-staffed home simply cannot provide the level of care that residents need during this pandemic,” the letter said.

Donna Duncan, CEO of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association, one of the letter’s signatories, said that the sector is struggling against fear.

“We’re getting suppliers who are dropping supplies off on the road," said Ms. Duncan, whose group represents 70 per cent of Ontario’s 630 long-term care homes. "They won’t even come up the steps.”

Some homes can’t get plumbers or elevator repair people to complete work, she added.

The novel coronavirus has caused more devastation in nursing and retirement homes than in any other setting in Canada, with at least 75 deaths among residents as of Wednesday, according to a tally done by The Globe and Mail after contacting local and provincial public-health authorities across the country. The new coronavirus has invaded at least 600 nursing and retirement homes.

The toll continues to rise. Two more residents died of COVID-19 overnight on Wednesday at the Pinecrest Nursing Home in Bobcaygeon, Ont., the site of the deadliest outbreak in the country.

Sixteen Pinecrest residents have succumbed to the coronavirus, according to Michelle Snarr, the home’s medical director.

Ms. Duncan of the Ontario Long-Term Care Association said she supports the Ontario government’s recent emergency order that relaxes requirements around completing paperwork, and allows homes to hire and deploy staff where needed.

She said there is a labour force looking for work that could help in homes with general care – anyone from dental hygienists to housekeepers to food handlers.

Candace Rennick, secretary-treasurer of CUPE Ontario, said she understands the need to boost staffing in long-term care homes, but bringing in untrained workers or volunteers puts both staff and residents at risk.

“These people aren’t necessarily trained to deal with long-term care issues, they’re not trained to deal with infection-control issues,” she said. “Do we appreciate that there is a crisis and providers need relief? Absolutely, but those measures can’t come at the health and safety risk of the people who are living and caring for the residents."

On Thursday, CUPE Ontario members in the long-term care sector wore stickers on the job to protest what they see as second-class treatment when it comes to their access to personal protective equipment.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday that most front-line health-care workers haven’t asked for wage increases, but rather the equipment they need to do their jobs.

“The most important thing first is that we make sure that all front-line health care workers in hospitals, home care and long-term care have the personal protective equipment that they need to remain safe and healthy,” she said.

In the case of Bruce County’s long-term care homes, Gateway Haven in Wiarton and Brucelea Haven in Walkerton, retaining staff has not been a problem, according to Jill Roote, the county’s emergency information officer.

The county’s offer to library and museum workers was simply an attempt to plan ahead, she said by e-mail. “In order to be pro-active under a health crisis, it is important to put measures in place to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable – our long-term care residents.”

With reports from Jill Mahoney and Les Perreaux

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