N.S. health-care system at ‘breaking point’ as hundreds of workers remain off job

Nova Scotia’s health-care system is reaching critical levels as hundreds of workers across the province remain in isolation due to COVID-19.

According to Dr. Nicole Boutilier, vice-president of medicine with Nova Scotia Health, 739 health-care workers are off work isolating, either because they tested positive for COVID-19 or they’re a close contact of a positive case.

“This number is one of these ones that is very, very fluid and goes up and down every day as people come in and out of the workforce,” said Boutilier.

“It’s a number we watch. We have very close eyes on that every single day.”

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Some units are experiencing vacancy rates of between 14 and 39 per cent.

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The majority of workers exposed to COVID-19 were exposed outside of the workplace, she said.

There are currently 48 people in COVID-specific units in hospital, of whom seven are in ICU and four are in intermediate units.

However, Boutilier said there are also 32 “incidental” cases – people who showed up in hospital for a non-COVID-related reason, but were found to have the disease upon admission. They are not being counted in the province’s hospitalization numbers.

Boutilier noted these numbers are also constantly in flux and could change day-to-day.

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There are 12 outbreaks within the health-care system involving 64 people, who are also not counted in the province’s hospitalization numbers.

“They remain at this time in hospital due to another issue that is not COVID,” she said.

All these issues are creating “significant pressure” and units are constantly re-evaluating their staff to try to fill the gaps, said Boutilier.

Meanwhile, many health-care services have been reduced or delayed as staff concentrate on emergency and acute care, and she anticipates there will be further reductions in non-essential ambulatory and surgical services.

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“We’ve actively been looking at those opportunities to redeploy all the clinical staff from those reduced service areas into areas where they can be effective,” Boutlilier said.

While the province recently reduced self-isolation for the general public from 10 days to seven, the change does not apply to health-care workers.

‘It’s at a critical point’

Jason MacLean, the president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU), said those in isolation include 400 to 500 NSGEU members.

“There’s been strain on the system for quite some time, even before the pandemic, but it’s at a critical point right now – I would even say a breaking point,” he said.

MacLean said throughout the system on Thursday, there were “negative beds” available for people who needed them, mostly because of staffing, but also because of the amount of people being admitted to hospital.

Click to play video: 'Some Atlantic Canada provinces ramp up restrictions to protect hospitals'

Some Atlantic Canada provinces ramp up restrictions to protect hospitals

Some Atlantic Canada provinces ramp up restrictions to protect hospitals

The staff shortages are creating issues for those who remain at work, he said.

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“And we know fatigue in the health-care system is the No. 1 cause of injuries, and you’re going to have more people get sick, more people get burnt out and less people that can work in the system,” he said.

“So we’re in a really, really bad situation right now.”

Even though the highly contagious Omicron variant is said to be less likely to cause severe illness than previous variants, MacLean said it should be taken seriously.

“I really plead for the public not to treat this variant as if it’s a simple cold, because there’s just too many people that are sick from it that are coming in contact with health-care workers, and coming in contact with the system,” he said. “And the system really cannot withstand this.”

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Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union, said the staffing shortages have been difficult for nurses who have had to be called back from vacation or asked to work overtime.

Many of them had been looking forward to when cases and hospitalizations would go down so they can take some well-earned time off.

“Well, COVID decided that wasn’t going to be the case,” she said. “Everyone was just a little disappointed.”

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In addition to hospital workers, Hazelton said “several hundred” nurses are off work in long-term care, which is a “big concern” because they’re staffing isn’t as robust as in acute care.

“It’s really tough to keep up and it’s been a real challenge for staffing,” she said.

Hazelton asked Nova Scotians to continue to follow public health advice like masking, handwashing and getting vaccinated and boostered when they are able to.

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

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