It was a Thursday night when Chrissy Munro received a text message saying more nurses were needed in La Loche.
She took one look at her husband, who knew exactly what she was thinking, before calling the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) to say she would go.
“As soon as I looked at him I’m like, ‘I gotta do this.’ He’s like, ‘You’ve got to do it,” Munro said in a recent phone interview.
Three days later — on May 3 — Munro was in her car driving from her home in Regina up to the northern community, leaving her husband and two kids behind.
A COVID-19 outbreak in La Loche Health Centre’s long term care facility had been declared on April 17 and in the following weeks, the village of around 2,800 people saw a rapid increase in cases.
Many health care workers in the area needed to self-isolate after coming in contact with someone infected with the virus, leaving them out of commission for days and their shifts a gaping hole in staff schedules. Munro, who is a registered nurse and works in Regina as a public health nurse, was one of dozens of health care workers who travelled to La Loche during the outbreak to fill the needed positions.
“It was like, boom, we’ve got to get up here. These people need help,” she said. “It was a bit chaotic in the beginning, but the team came together beautifully.”
Munro has been working in La Loche for more than a month now and is set to return home on Tuesday. She said she would stay longer if she could and that the work has reinvigorated her passion for nursing.
“I want to remember this for the rest of my life, and I think I will because I’ve met so many people and so many people came together,” she said.
As outbreaks crashed over La Loche, Beauval, the Lloydminster Hospital, Meadow Lake Hospital and the Victoria Hospital in Prince Albert, the SHA pulled on a pool of 2,000 workers scattered across the province who were willing and able to be redeployed if needed. Additional workers volunteered.
While many were redeployed within the same facility or community to cover for their own co-workers who needed to self-isolate, around 1,000 people have been redeployed to other locations in Saskatchewan, according to a statement posted to the SHA’s website on May 21.
Keeping that many moving people organized is no easy task.
Behind the hundreds of front-line workers redeployed across the province are more than 60 SHA staff taking care of the logistics, said Dean Biesenthal, executive director of workforce planning and employment strategies for the SHA.
When COVID-19 first hit Saskatchewan, the SHA prepared six labour pools in the province, with one each for the northeast, northwest, Regina, Saskatoon, southeast and southwest regions of the province. Those pools contain the 2,000 health care workers available for redeployment.
Once Biesenthal’s team is alerted to an outbreak, they look at health care staff already working in that facility and community to see if other staff can be locally redeployed to fill the gaps. If that isn’t possible, they turn to their labour pools to see if anyone is available. From there they move to a broadcast system, which sends out text messages and emails to employees — like those Munro received — asking for volunteers.
Sometimes help is needed in multiple communities at once.
“When La Loche was happening, which was the first (outbreak), we also had PA and Lloydminster at the same time,” said Biesenthal. “It was challenging but, you know, everyone pulled together.”
When a COVID-19 case was detected inside Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital on April 30, dozens of health care workers had to self-isolate, leaving 116 shifts empty that needed to be filled in less than 24 hours. Supported by workers from across the province, 112 of those shifts were filled by the following morning, Biesenthal said.
Garth Wright is a registered nurse who works for Digital Health with the SHA and in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the Regina General Hospital.
Ten hours after receiving a text message that nurses were needed in Prince Albert, Wright was on his way there, bringing groceries and clothing to last him more than a week. Wright ended up working just two days in Prince Albert before a number of the hospital’s staff were tested and cleared to go back to work, but he still enjoyed the experience.
“They were very appreciative of us coming up there and immediately being able to support (them),” said Wright.
“We were leaving our families a little bit nervous, but you’re able to find that balance to be taking care of the patients that need the care, whether or not they were at Prince Albert or Regina.”
Accommodations, food and potentially also a rental vehicle all need to be lined up for every moving health care worker. A team of 11 people in each of the six labour pool regions are responsible for making sure the staff member has a bed to sleep in and food to eat — arrangements Biesenthal said are often being made “on the fly.”
Spotty cell service, a limited number of hotels and grocery stores, and checkpoints between communities are other logistical issues the SHA has to quickly work through in the northern regions.
“It was quite a bit of learning from that perspective around logistics and the other considerations that we need to have, taking into account our employees, their needs and how we support them to be as prepared as possible going to these new communities to support them,” said Biesenthal.
Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN), said there are typically stricter regulations around redeploying nurses, but because of the pandemic, SHA and SUN signed a letter of understanding to allow for easier movement of staff.
Watching her members switch communities and take everything in stride has made Zambory proud.
“This is everyone’s first pandemic, so we all have to work through these things together,” she said. “Because we all understand at the end of the day, the people that we’re looking after are the people of Saskatchewan.”