‘Now is not the time to get injured’: Front-line workers warn B.C. hospitals precariously understaffed

On the same day the health minister announced plans are underway to establish a field hospital, front-line health-care workers are baffled at how the province will staff the facility when B.C.’s existing hospitals are already critically understaffed.

Last week, Health Emergency Management B.C. wrote in an internal memo obtained by CTV News that Vancouver General Hospital is facing “critical staffing shortages due to staff becoming ill through community exposure” of COVID-19. But now, dozens of health-care workers are speaking up to say the entire hospital system is precariously short-staffed. 

Nurses and doctors working in various wards and capacities expressed frustration, exhaustion and despair at the situation; being reassigned to units where they have little to no experience, 12-hour and double shifts without enough time to use the bathroom or eat, barrages of text messages pressuring them to pick up more overtime shifts, feeling abandoned by managers they feel don’t recognize the intense mental and physical strain they’re under every day.

The biggest concern is the ability to deliver adequate patient care while tending to double or triple as many patients as their training and guidelines require them to. Several people described the working conditions as unsustainable for staff and “dangerous” for patients.

One doctor bluntly warned the public, “Now is not the time to get injured,” whether it’s taking risks like speeding or engaging in high-impact sports, because B.C.’s health-care system is already tenuous.

PROVINCE PROVIDES SOME INSIGHT INTO STAFF ILLNESSES

While non-urgent scheduled surgeries have been postponed and COVID-19 hospitalizations have been higher in past waves, health-care workers tell CTV News they’ve never been so short-staffed before. Across Canada, a significant number have walked away from their medical careers in recent months and others have given up full-time jobs in favour of part-time hours, but COVID illnesses are also playing a significant role.

On Tuesday, the health minister said 27,937 shifts across the province were unfilled from Jan. 3 to 9 by health-care workers who called in sick due to short-term illnesses. If one person was out for a week with COVID symptoms, that would be seven shifts.

“We are also closely monitoring sickness levels across health services, especially in hospitals, long-term care and home support,” said Adrian Dix. “All health authorities are in the process of updating their contingency plans.”

And while Dix reiterated that “it’s an incredibly stretched time” in the health-care system, one health-care worker after another emphasized that they don’t believe the public understands how difficult it is for hospitals to function right now.

NURSES COMPILE FRONT-LINE ACCOUNTS

A veteran nurse and nurse educator, who has spent decades training nurses at various institutions has teamed up with two recently-retired nurses to compile the stories of their colleagues on the front lines who fear professional repercussions if they speak out themselves.

“This is just my opinion, but I think there’s a failure of leadership and there isn’t an acknowledgement of how serious the problem is,” said Paula Leweke. “I have seen, as an educator, some of the most talented, gifted nurses leaving because they cannot deal with stress.”

Nurses say in recent months the situation has worsened, describing working short-staffed nearly all the time, while responsible for up to triple the patients they feel they can safely care for as they swelter under layers of personal protective equipment and feel devalued by provincial health officials, health authority employers and administrators.

Their biggest concerns are centered around the ability to care for patients at the standard to which they’ve been trained, rather than the oft-heard direction to “just keep them breathing.”

“You can imagine working in constant fear that somebody is going to die because you cannot get there to give them the care that they require,” said Leweke, who emphasized it’s not just COVID-19 patients who are impacted by critical staffing shortages.

“I want the public to understand, I want Adrian Dix to understand. I feel the government and the health authorities and the union and the professional bodies are all failing the nurses right now…they’re holding the whole health-care system together.”

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