Hospitals grapple with 'historical' staff absences, burnout amid 6th COVID wave

WATCH: Sixth COVID-19 wave worries rise ahead of Easter long weekend

Canada’s latest surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is taking a toll on health-care workers across the country.

As provinces grapple with a sixth wave of the pandemic, a growing number of doctors, nurses and other hospital staff are calling in sick with COVID-19, raising concerns about the availability and quality of care for patients.

Dr. Gerald Evans, infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said hospitals across the province are struggling with staffing levels, despite government officials, including Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliot, saying the province is equipped to handle the surge.

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“The problem that we have is even if the numbers of people in hospital stay below what we saw during the fifth wave or perhaps gets to the fifth wave, we have a lot less people available to take care of those people in hospital,” he told Global News.

“So that’s a critical health-care measure that right now we don’t think is being really carefully looked at.”

Hospital absences at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Ont.

Hospital absences at Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Ont.

Photo credit: KHSC

The University Health Network (UHN) encompasses Princess Margaret, Toronto General and Toronto Western hospitals and five sites of Toronto Rehab.

The network says the staffing challenge “is not related to admitted patients but rather to the fact that we are seeing more staff reporting either that they are positive for the virus or have a household member who is positive.”

In a statement emailed to Global News last week, UHN said that it is seeing a seven-day rolling average that suggests almost 40 per cent of the staff who are reporting symptoms to health services are positive for COVID-19.

With a large number of workers being off either with COVID-19 or because they came in contact with someone with the virus, the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) says a reduction in services could happen later this week.

As of Monday, LHSC reported that 288 staff and physicians were off sick with COVID-19, and more were absent from work because they are a close contact of someone with the virus.

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It’s a similar scenario in Quebec, which has also seen a rise in hospitalizations in recent weeks.

Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre, said it is estimated that roughly 13,000 health-care workers are absent from work across the province.

He said the shortages are going to have a “major impact” in terms of how care is compromised.

“If health-care workers are forced back too soon while they are ill or more importantly, while they are contagious, you can … have transmission and perpetuation of transmission in the health-care setting,” he told Global News.

In New Brunswick, surgeries are being postponed and services are limited due to a hospital staffing crisis there — the worst the province has faced during COVID-19, doctors and nurses say.

On Monday, Dr. Mark MacMillan, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, said the number of health-care workers off the job due to the virus is the highest it’s ever been since the pandemic began.

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Meanwhile, an emergency physician in Medicine Hat, Alta., said staffing levels were at “historical lows,” with hospitals struggling to fill units.

“We’re very, very shorthanded and short-staffed,” said Dr. Paul Parks, president of the Emergency Medicine section at the Alberta Medical Association (AMA).

“A lot of wards, for example, will be two, three nurses short as a starting point and then you just have one even … not be able to come in for five or seven days — it has a massive impact,” he told Global News.

The rate of burnout in the health-care profession has nearly doubled in Canada compared to pre-pandemic levels.

A survey of 4,000 physicians and medical learners, also known as residents, done by the Canadian Medical Association in November 2021 showed 53 per cent have experienced “high levels” of burnout, compared to only 30 per cent four years before.

Nearly half — or 46 per cent — of doctors are considering reducing their work in clinics in the next two years, according to the survey that was published last month. Preliminary data also showed that 59 per cent of physicians said their mental health has taken a turn for the worse since the start of the pandemic.

At Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Evans said this latest wave is only going to accelerate burnout and force more health-care workers to leave the profession to pursue other careers or go into early retirement.

“We’re getting tired. We’ve been doing this for two years now,” he said. “It’s going to lead to more challenges with burnout and people are just going to retire. They’re just going to leave.”

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The staff shortages mean those on the job are having to work double-time.

“Every shift you work now you’re short-staffed, so you’re overworked, you have more patients than you normally would and you’re going on two-and-a-half years. It’s a moral distress,” said Parks, at the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital.

MUHC’s Vinh said the issue of burnout among health-care workers is nothing new, but has been further highlighted due to COVID-19.

He said if the health-care capacity and staff are pushed beyond the limit, there is not only a short-term risk of burnout, but not being able to recruit and maintain personnel could be a challenge in the long run.

“So, that’s why it’s really important to make sure that we mitigate community transmission,” he added, urging indoor masking and vaccination.

— with files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson, Adam Toy and Nathalie Sturgeon

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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