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Staff gather outside the Orchard Villa retirement home, on June 1, 2020.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Nursing home operators in Ontario are calling on the provincial government to address a severe staff shortage in their facilities, including redeploying idled hospitality employees to work in the sector.

As COVID-19 case counts rise in many parts of Canada, stoking fears of a second wave of the virus, nursing homes in Ontario are facing fewer options to staff their residences than they had during the early days of the pandemic, say health care officials.

Many personal support workers quit their jobs in August after the provincial top-up pay during the pandemic ended. Meanwhile, the province’s registered nurses association has cancelled an emergency program that recruited front-line staff for the health care sector, and nursing students are choosing hospitals rather than long-term care homes for their clinical placements.

“We are deeply concerned that we are not ready for the second wave,” said Lisa Levin, chief executive officer of AdvantAge Ontario, which represents 200 municipally owned and not-for-profit long-term care homes. “Every home is vulnerable.”

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Donna Duncan, chief executive officer of the Ontario Long Term Care Association, said nursing homes have fewer staff today than when the pandemic began in March. Her association represents 70 per cent of the province’s 630 homes.

In June, Ms. Duncan urged Premier Doug Ford’s government to fund a new training program that would help people who’ve lost jobs in the hospitality sector work as personal support workers in long-term care homes. As part of the program, these employees could work in a home gaining practical experience preparing food, screening visitors for symptoms of the coronavirus and cleaning the facilities.

Ms. Duncan is still waiting for a response. The government has promised to come up with programs to address chronic staffing problems in long-term care homes. But time is running out, say health care experts.

Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario, is so frustrated with the government’s lack of action, she announced on July 31 that she will not reopen the VIANurse program if the province is hit with a second wave of the virus.

Between mid-March and the end of May, the program recruited thousands of nurses and personal support workers to help just over 300 health care entities struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks, including 238 long-term care homes.

“Nursing home residents deserve permanent solutions,” Ms. Grinspun said in an interview. “We are done with Band-Aid solutions.”

The Ontario Ministry of Long-Term Care says every option is on the table.

“The government knows that staff in long-term care homes are the backbone of the sector, and we are committed to using every resource available to support long-term care homes and staff as we work to stop the spread of COVID-19,” a ministry spokesperson said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

Ontario is one of several provinces dealing with a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. The province recorded 401 new cases on Thursday, the eighth consecutive day the count has exceeded 200. Quebec reported 297 cases on Friday. And British Columbia recorded 165 new cases on Thursday, a record daily high.

The virus is transmitted in social gatherings and is spilling over to the elderly, said B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry. “We seeing our grandparents, our seniors people in our life who are most susceptible to ending up in hospital or dying from this virus, getting it and sometimes they are getting it because we are not being careful enough.”

Both Quebec and British Columbia are better positioned than Ontario to confront a second wave of infections. In Quebec, 8,000 newly hired personal support workers will be working by mid-September after a government recruitment blitz, Health and Social Services Minister Christian Dubé has said. The government is also barring orderlies from working in multiple homes – a practice that hastened the spread of the virus in the spring.

The B.C. government unveiled a new program last week that will train up to 7,000 people to work as health care aides in long-term care homes. The government will pay the tuition costs.

The virus was particularly lethal in long-term care homes in Canada’s two largest provinces, killing 4,898 in Quebec and 1,856 in Ontario.

With a report from Eric Andrew-Gee

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