COVID-19: B.C. health-care system ‘stretched’ by staffing shortages

Nurses, paramedics and other health care workers missed 27,937 shifts “due to short-term illness” between Jan. 3 and 9, said B.C.’s health minister.

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Signs that the COVID-19 Omicron variant is stretching B.C.’s health-care system to its limits have some worried about patient care.

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“We’re frightened for our patients,” said Danette Thomsen, interim vice-president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union.

“Unforeseen limited physician availability” led to the closure of Nicola Valley Hospital’s emergency department on Tuesday night, while Chetwynd Hospital was put on “complete diversion” Monday night to “ensure safe patient care.”

Thomsen said the temporary closures forced people to drive on possibly treacherous roads in the middle of winter to seek medical care.

While it is unclear if COVID-19 is to blame for all staff shortages, other parts of B.C.’s health-care system are under stress as well. On the weekend, more than half of the ambulances scheduled to respond to 911 calls in the Lower Mainland were parked due to a paramedic shortage that has worsened as COVID-19 case numbers have risen. And on Wednesday, LifeLabs, the province’s largest provider of private lab services, announced it had temporarily closed 11 B.C. locations and adjusted hours at another five due to Omicron.

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At a media briefing Tuesday, provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C.’s nurses, paramedics and other health-care workers missed a combined 27,937 shifts “due to short-term illness” between Jan. 3 and 9.

“All health authorities are in the process of updating their contingency plans,” he said, adding it was “an incredibly stretched time.”

The province is also seeking space for a possible field hospital in Metro Vancouver in case it is needed.

“We are not moving to set up a field hospital at this time. But of course, we want to have all of the options available as we go through these difficult weeks,” said the health minister.

A health-care worker walks among the tents of a field hospital set up to house patients recovering from COVID-19 at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto .
A health-care worker walks among the tents of a field hospital set up to house patients recovering from COVID-19 at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto . Photo by Carlos Osorio/Reuters

In an earlier briefing, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said B.C. has a system in place to manage staffing when people call in sick. Asking staff with mild COVID to work would be a “last resort.”

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“We have principles that we use, things like calling people from vacation and time off, extending hours, having people work in different areas,” she said. “There’s a whole series of things that we do to try and manage when people are off ill as COVID is spreading through the community.”

But Thomsen said that puts the “burden” back on nurses, who are already burned out after two years of working through the pandemic. “What is the plan to support nurses?” she asked.

Thomsen said she has heard from nurses who were sick in bed and received 10 text messages asking them to fill a shift. “They know their colleagues are struggling without them and it piles on the guilt.”

Diverting nurses from one ward to another with no orientation also creates “angst” and concerns about patient care.

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Thomsen said the nursing shortage has been an issue for several years before the pandemic began.

Dr. Ramneek Dosanjh, president of Doctors of B.C.
Dr. Ramneek Dosanjh, president of Doctors of B.C. Photo by Jimmy Jeong /PNG

Doctors of B.C. president Ramneek Dosanjh emphasized the importance of contingency systems for staff shortages “because working short-staffed puts even greater pressure on an already stressed system.”

The association believes doctors who have the virus should not be forced to return to work as it could compromise both doctor and patient safety.

“We will be speaking with government and the (provincial health officer) to express our concerns, and to discuss steps that, if this comes into practice, significant protections are put in place for both patients and health care providers,” she said.

Postmedia reached out to the Ministry of Health, Fraser Health and Interior Health for comment on staffing levels at hospitals, but did not receive responses by deadline.

gluymes@postmedia.com

twitter.com/glendaluymes

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