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Omicron wreaks havoc on Canadian health workers

Nurses, doctors, and respiratory therapist prepare to intubate a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to put pressure on Humber River Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 20, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as its extremely contagious Omicron form, has exacerbated an already difficult staffing situation in Canadian hospitals.

The news: Interviews with a dozen health-care workers, including eight current and former nurses, reveal a health-care system strained by a pandemic that struck at the worst possible time – sickness side-lining staff as more COVID-19 patients than ever require hospitalisation, forcing health-care workers exhausted by two years of nonstop work to take on more.

Nurses, doctors, and a respiratory therapist intubate a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to put pressure on Humber River Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 20, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio
  • Hospitals have started pushing employees to skip vacations or work beyond shifts.
  • Canadians are proud of their health-care system. However, critics claim that administrations failed to appropriately invest in it, leaving it vulnerable to the ravages of a years-long public health disaster.
  • Because of training and certification backlogs, capped earnings, or the reputation of a punishing profession, if health workers depart and are not replaced, the health system’s capacity may be harmed.
Toronto Paramedics clean their stretcher after delivering a patient to the emergency room as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to put pressure on Humber River Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 20, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Osori

Facts and figures: According to Statistics Canada, job vacancies in Canada’s health and social support industry increased by 78.8 per cent from the third quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2021.

  • Ontario’s government, which has been chastised for cutting the pay of some public employees, including nurses, prior to the epidemic, said in a statement that it had hired 6,700 health-care workers and personnel since the outbreak began, with another 6,000 planned by March. It was unclear whether or not this constituted a net increase.
Emergency room nurse Janelle Van Halteren, right, speaks with her colleague as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to put pressure on Humber River Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 20, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Osori

What they’re saying: When Lindsay Peltsch no longer wanted to bathe her patients, she realised she had to go.

  • “I still did that but I didn’t get the same sense of satisfaction anymore,” she said. “It seems small but it’s a big deal because people’s dignity is a big part of what we do.”
  • Peltsch worked as a paediatric nurse for 12 years, 10 of those at Toronto’s SickKids hospital. She loved nursing, but the stress became too much for her, she claimed.
  • Fully staffed shifts became a rarity. One of her most recent ER shifts had a ten-nurse shortage. She also believes that the profession is undervalued.
  • “I just got to a point where I just didn’t have any more to give.”
  • A SickKids spokesperson said that the hospital “has experienced challenges related to staffing” but was not aware of critical care unit shifts being short 10 nurses.

When Praveen Nakesvaran and his colleagues at Humber River Hospital take on tasks ordinarily occupied by nurses, moving them delicately onto their stomachs, tubes and everything, in the hopes of improving lung function.

  • “Usually we’re just at the head of the bed: We make sure the tube is secure,” Nakesvaran said. “Now we’re kind of doing the nursing jobs, as well.”

Suzi Laj an intensive care unit manager at the hospital says she knows morale has been an issue and has sought to address it through everything from daily huddles to bringing in chaplaincy staff.

  • They are “trying to keep them hopeful and, you know, supporting them … but their resilience is really wearing,” she said.

Omicron’s peak may be approaching in Canada, according to public health experts, and Ontario announced plans to lift regulations last week. For the time being, however, the shortage of health care workers persists.

ICU doctor Jamie Spiegelman speaks to a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient before intubation as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to put pressure on Humber River Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, Canada January 20, 2022. REUTERS/Carlos Osorio

What’s important: Some provinces have made provisions for health-care workers to return to work soon after testing positive for COVID-19; for example, Ontario is allowing internationally trained nurses to gain on-the-job experience in hospitals, despite the fact that they often face obstacles and long waits before being able to practise in Canada.

  • Meanwhile, Manitoba has announced that it will send hundreds of patients to North Dakota for treatments due to a lack of capacity in its facilities.
  • When a Montreal ER nurse became ill with laryngitis during a shift, she was divided between staying at work to help her co-workers and returning home to rest and await the results of the COVID-19 test, she said.
  • The young nurse, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation at work, claimed she was encouraged to finish her shift since her co-workers were in desperate need of assistance.
  • Doris Grinspun, CEO of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, gets calls from nurses across the province wondering how they will cope. “All the hospital are scrambling.”
  • When Peltsch talks to her former co-workers, “they’re like, ‘Don’t come back.’ … A resilient group of people is starting to crumble,” she said.

“We are not asking for an easier job. We are asking to be able to do the hard job we signed up for safely.”

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