B.C. healthcare workers brace for further COVID-19 strain on overwhelmed system

Hospitals need help. B.C. doctors and nurses say staff are falling ill, and healthcare workers can't keep up with the need. Ashley Burr reports.

The prospect that the healthcare system in B.C. could collapse due to surging COVID-19 cases is weighing heavily on frontline workers.

As the province sees sky-high daily case counts, rampant community spread, and an increase in hospitalizations, provincial health officials have warned that all sectors — including healthcare — could see as many as one in three workers could be out sick due to the virus.

It’s enough to bring Danette Thomsen with the BC Nurses’ Union to tears. She says the strain on members is heart-wrenching.

“Things are critical already. It’s like being in a trench and seeing another army coming,” she tells CityNews.

“I’m not sure where this is going to end. I’m very frightened…One nurse today, she said ‘The fourth wave crushed me.’ She’s been out of school for a year. It’s heavy.”

At Nanaimo General Hospital, Thomsen says they are operating with 70 per cent of nursing staff while the patient load is 1at 109 per cent. in Chilliwack over Christmas, she says two nurses were caring for 26 patients. Members have had to turn off their phones to get some reprieve from requests to cover shifts.

“They’re working copious amounts of overtime. They’re doing what they can to support their colleagues and to care for the patients of this province,” she says.

“Our long-term care nurses are staying on shift for 16 hours, not because they’re being told to but because there’s not another nurse to come in after them. Patients become like your family, they become like your grandmas and grandpas. How do you walk out on that? How do you turn your back?”

But while Thomsen says nurses are doing everything they can to care for patients, she worries about the toll its taking on them and questions when and whether any relief is in sight.

“Young nurses, just not even know how they’re going to cope. It’s heart-wrenching. I don’t know how to do anything else to support them,” she says.

“What are the health authorities doing to get ready for that shortage and to support our nurses that are on the front line? What extra people are they bringing in? What measures are they taking to ensure that they stay healthy and not sick, like ensuring they have the proper PPE so they feel safe to work and they’re physically safe to work? Those are the things that our nurses are looking for right now.”

RELATED: B.C. hospitalization numbers up as COVID spread continues

Like Thomsen, Mike Old with the Hospital Employees’ Union says a staffing crisis in healthcare predates the pandemic.

“Over the last 22 months of this pandemic, an already strained healthcare workforce has had to go through a lot, and it’s taking a toll,” he says, adding that a survey of members done in the summertime found one in four were considering leaving the field because of their experiences during the pandemic.

“Health care workers are pretty tough, they’re, they’re committed to their patients and their care home residents and they’ll do everything they can to make sure that those services are in place. But health care workers have their limits. They’re really, really exhausted. I think for a lot of them the thought of going through a fifth wave of this pandemic is going to be really hard for them.”

While Old hopes the sector will see fewer employees out sick than businesses, he doesn’t think there is any way to avoid widespread shortages.

“We are at a pretty critical stage and we need to do everything we can to make sure that the next few weeks doesn’t collapse our healthcare system,” he says.

“We are at such a different stage of this pandemic at this point. Omicron seems to be so highly transmissible. It’s, it’s inevitable that there’ll be a big impact on the healthcare system and on healthcare workers. We’re hoping that because of the measures that we’ve put in place over the last few days that we can keep capacity there for people who need care for COVID, and also in anticipation of the fact that we suspect they’ll be many health care workers who become ill over the next few weeks and won’t be there to care for patients.”

Thomsen says she is worried about what message is being sent when the Omicron variant is described as causing mild illness.

“I am a bit concerned that people think Omicron is not going to make you that sick because obviously, we’re already seeing the hospitalizations go up over the last couple of days.
Obviously, people are getting very sick, probably the majority are not. But like COVID, we don’t know how we’ll react if we get it.”

Dr. Delbert Dorscheid, a critical care specialist at St. Paul’s Hospital says the sheer number of cases in the community make a spike in hospitalizations — as has been seen in Quebec and Ontario — incredibly likely.

“Even if it’s a much smaller percentage of patients with Omicron who end up in hospital if you have 10 times the number of patients infected we’ll have as many — if not more — patients than what Delta generated. Then where’s the staff to care for them?”

He says hospital workers are already postponing time off, working overtime, and getting shorter breaks between shifts. With testing capacity overwhelmed, the true number of new cases each day isn’t known, but officials have said it is anywhere from three to five times higher than the number reported by the province. This combined with the rate and speed of community transmission makes it incredibly difficult to make backup plans, according to Dorscheid.

“A lot of us are quite worried. iI’s not just that it’s a fifth wave, but this one’s going to have a totally different dynamic for us. We don’t really have a mechanism in place at this time because we don’t know who’s going to get sick and who’s not — and we’re really just all trying not to,” he says.

“I don’t want people to think that it’s getting better, because we’re really just kind of starting into this. We have many weeks to go yet.”

Dorscheid, along with Old and Thomsen are stressing how important it is for people to follow public health orders, stay home when sick, and get vaccinated.

Dr. Ramneek Dosanjh, president of Doctors of BC, says she is hopeful weary British Columbians will follow public health advice amid warnings about the potential impact of this wave on the health-care system.

“Initially, we thought we were sprinting through this pandemic to make this work and try to get it all under control and behind us. What we’re learning is we’re in more of a marathon here,” she says.

“We are aware of the burdens and the hardships that everyone is facing. This has not been easy. We can continue to sustain our collective efforts — and it’s going to take all of us.”

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