VANCOUVER — More than half of the firefighters in Prince Rupert, B.C., who were off sickthis week are at the forefront of a wave of workers expected to fall ill because of COVID-19.
Firefighters, police and teachers are among those putting together contingency plans in case a significant number of employees call in sick as COVID-19 cases surge because of the Omicron variant.
B.C.'s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry warned this week that businesses, schools and health facilities could lose up to a third of their staff due to the rapid spread of the variant.
Professional Firefighters Association president Gord Ditchburn said Thursday that the new variant is affecting firefighters in communities across the province.
"It does have an impact, but we are mitigating that by having extra staff available. Departments are meeting their staffing needs in a variety of ways, either by using volunteers or overtime," Ditchburn said in an interview.
The City of Prince Rupert said in a statement that five members returned to work Thursday, leaving eight of 20 firefighters are still isolating because of COVID-19.
It said the department is managing, but if it can't address serious incidents with its staffing level, it has an agreement with the volunteer firefighting department in neighbouring Port Edward to help.
RCMP said it is also expecting a rise in employees requiring sick leave or time off due to exposure to the virus in B.C.
Sgt. Chris Manseau said in an email the department is discussing the possibility of shifting resources to ensure proper staffing levels are maintained.
"Units have been asked to review their business continuity plans to ensure process and procedures are in place to maintain essential service levels where human resources are significantly reduced," he said.
The RCMP also has "surge capacity" and can pull resources from around the province should they be needed.
School attendance has been phased in across the province, with the full return to in-person learning starting Jan. 10.
Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers' Federation, said teachers are using this week to plan for what will happen if there is a "functional closure" of schools caused by staff shortages and they are forced back into online learning.
"We just don't have enough replacement teachers on-call to fill in for people when they're away. We don't have enough during non-pandemic times, we certainly don't have enough during pandemic times," Mooring said.
She is calling for the province to prioritize booster shots for teachers, provide N95 masks to educators and ensure proper air filters are installed in schools in an attempt to prevent closures.
"We're hearing from the province and from the provincial health office that schools are a top priority for remaining open and yet we're continuing to see a reluctance to put additional safety measures in place that not only make sense but would be fairly easy to do," she said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Brieanna Charlebois, The Canadian Press