Coronavirus: Funeral industry facing staff shortages

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A recent rise in COVID-19-related deaths, along with staffing shortages, means that people working in Ontario’s death care industry are struggling now more than ever to keep up with demand.

In response, industry regulators in Ontario are allowing some students to work in the province’s bereavement sector and provide funeral services before completing their studies. Allan Cole, owner and president of MacKinnon and Bowes funeral home in Toronto, said he welcomes the new measures, which are a first for the province.

“I’m very grateful for any initiatives that are put forward that help us to manage the staffing requirements,” Cole told CTV’s Your Morning on Wednesday. “We’re trying really anything that might work to address the needs of the client families that we serve.”

The notice comes from the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), which is responsible for overseeing the province’s bereavement sector. The temporary measures were implemented on Jan. 6, and only apply to students from Humber College, with campuses based in Toronto and Orangeville, Ont., as well as Collège Boréal, with campuses in cities such as Toronto and Sudbury. About 100 students would qualify to work under the new rules.

According to the BAO, these measures are meant to address “critical staffing shortages due to the increase in Omicron cases.” Regulators are also calling on retirees to return to service.

Experts in the death care industry believe the staffing shortage began last year. With many employees in the funeral business expected to endure long wait times before being eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, many simply walked away from the job, said Joe O’Neil, a funeral director in London, Ont. Cole also said the industry continues to face threats to staffing as a result of the ongoing spread of COVID-19 itself.

“We’ve been challenged by absenteeism due to either infection or the requirement for quarantine,” he said. “It’s made it very challenging to manage the demands of the families that we serve.”

Adding to that challenge is an increasing number of deaths in the province. On Wednesday, 60 COVID-19-related deaths were reported in Ontario, an increase from the 46 deaths that were logged at the same point last week. According to provincial epidemiological reports, the daily number of deaths recorded in the province has steadily increased since the first case of Omicron was detected in the province in late November.

The daily number of COVID-19-related deaths has also risen across Canada recently. On Wednesday, 148 COVID-19-related deaths were reported across Canada, which has now seen at least 31,827 deaths related to the virus. Recent data shows the seven-day rolling average of COVID-19-related deaths in Canada continues to rise, with an average of about 121 deaths as of Tuesday.

“It’s made it particularly intense to adhere to the guidance provided by health authorities and then in addition, manage increased requirements by families,” said Cole.

RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH WORKING IN FUNERAL HOMES

A study published last year by the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health in British Columbia discovered that bodies infected with COVID-19 can still be contagious for a certain period of time after death. According to research, the risk of contracting COVID-19 due to improper handling of an infected corpse is highest shortly after death when pathogens in the body may still be viable.

This risk, however, decreases over time as cells stop replicating and their biochemistry changes. Those at greatest risk of infection include people exposed to contaminated surfaces, respiratory droplets or bodily fluids of those who died with COVID-19, the study said.

Cole also spoke about some of the risks associated with working in a funeral home, which at times involves going into health-care facilities that have been exposed to COVID-19.

“Throughout the pandemic, from the very beginning, I’ve gone into long-term care facilities and hospitals and engaged with families that may have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus,” he said. “So there is a risk element associated with what we do.”

Still, Cole said his funeral home takes all possible precautions to ensure the safety of employees and clients through the use of personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, as well as proper cleaning protocols for vehicles used to transport bodies.

In an effort to further reduce potential backlogs, the BOA has also directed crematoriums in the province to modify their operations so that bodies are processed within two days. Modifications can include extending operating hours, adjusting schedules, eliminating holds and/or adding staff members. The directive took effect on Jan. 10 and is in force until Jan. 26.

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