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B.C. nurses, doctors exhausted as next COVID-19 peak comes this week: spokespeople

B.C. infections may have peaked but there’s a lag between infections and hospitalizations

While the most challenging days of COVID-19 are predicted to be ahead for British Columbia’s health-care system, representatives for doctors and nurses say their members are on the verge of a possible collapse.

Doctors of BC president Dr. Ramneek Dosanjh said it has been an overwhelming three years for her members.

“I am hearing from some doctors who are just ready to quit,” she said in an interview.

The organization represents 16,000 physicians in the province.

“People have shared their honest feelings with me and they’re feeling so consumed. They’re emotionally exhausted. They’re feeling depleted,” she said.

“They’re seeing their patients suffer. They’re also under such constraints.”

Aman Grewal, president of the BC Nurses Union, said nurses are under “incredible pressure” to balance family and work responsibilities, which doesn’t leave them with enough downtime to take care of themselves.

“They are facing verbal and physical harassment from some members of the public who are becoming increasingly frustrated with this ongoing public health crisis,” she said. The organization represents 48,000 nurses.

“This, you know, has been an ongoing issue — violence toward nurses and it’s very morally distressing to know that our members are having to face that all while they are trying to care for their patients.”

On Friday, provincial health care officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the latest wave fuelled by the Omicron variant may have peaked in parts of B.C., but there’s a lag between infections and those who end up in hospital. That means difficult days are ahead for hospitals and their staff, Henry said.

Health officials said there were 819 COVID-positive cases in B.C. hospitals Monday, compared with 646 on Friday.

Henry issued an order Monday extending restrictions imposed last month on gatherings and closures of fitness centres and bars.

Her order said she took into account “the stress under which the public health and health-care systems are currently operating, and the impact this is having on the provision of health care to the population,” due to the rising presence of the Omicron variant.

The representatives said health-care workers are also facing a shortage of personal protective equipment, including masks.

Dosanjh said doctors need more support on the ground, like more family physicians who can share the burden, less paperwork and better infrastructure support such as universal health records so that the same tests are not repeated.

“A lot of people are seeing patients from 8 a.m. till 8 at night and then doing the paperwork. The days are usually very long for most physicians.”

BC Emergency Health Services said the number of staff absences last year on Jan. 4 was 38, Jan. 5 was 39, Jan. 6 and 7 was 33, Jan. 8 was 36 and Jan. 9 was 32. This year on Jan. 4 it was 69, Jan. 5 was 52, Jan. 6 was 70, Jan. 7 was 49, Jan. 8 was 53 and Jan. 9 was 41.

The emergency health services, which employs 4,000 paramedics and dispatchers in B.C., said there were 33 people off sick on Jan. 6 last year, while 70 people were ill this year.

Vancouver Coastal Health said in a statement its hospitals mirror what’s happening in the communities, which means they are still seeing COVID-19 cases.

Fraser Health said all emergency departments are fully operational, and while they are seeing an increased number of sick calls due to COVID-19, operational teams have a plan in place to mitigate against impact on staff and access to care.

No staff who have knowingly tested positive for COVID-19 have been called into work, said a statement from the health authority.

Between Jan. 3 and 9, there were 7,151 shifts at Fraser Health for which workers called in sick due to short-term illness.

Grewal said there are not enough resources to help nurses deal with their own mental well-being amid the increasing fatigue, anxiety and relentless slog starting to take its toll.

A nurse working four shifts in a row might have seen one death before the pandemic, she said.

“And here these nurses are seeing several deaths and several deaths of patients who are their age. They’re not elderly who are always the ones who are dying,” she said.

“You know, our nurses are humans as well.”

It is important for everyone to pay attention to this burnout, Dosanjh said because if more health-care workers are lost to it then patients suffer.

Her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May 2020 and died last April.

“He was alone and then had to undergo his chemotherapy alone. And then he had surgery alone and was in the hospital alone,” she said.

“There’s so many factors that affect our burnout.”

Health care is a calling where doctors and nurses are seen as invincible and stoic figures, Dosanjh said.

“We have feelings. We’re real people. We share our patients’ pain, we really do,” she said. “The world needs to recognize that we’re humans, you know.”

—Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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