There are some 2,000 health care workers off the job today in the Toronto area thanks to COVID-19 — and perhaps more — according to a survey of hospitals by CTV News —as health-care workers and administrators ask people to mask up and use caution .
Hospitals say they have contingency plans for losing nurses, doctors and other staff as they test positive or self-isolate thanks to close contacts, but it has been difficult for those who remain. This has raised questions about the health -are system’s ability to scale up should the sixth wave be comparable to what the province went through earlier this year.
“It makes staffing units and areas much harder and it means that staff who are already tired after more than two years of working through the pandemic are taking more shifts or taking on a larger caseload,” said Gillian Howard, a spokesperson for the University Health Network.
“The health-care system needs people to immunize with the vaccines, continue to mask, and continue to be cautious about gathering in large groups,” Howard said.
In Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, 137 workers are away, the hospital said. In Scarborough Health Network, 189 are at home. In Unity Health, 320 are missing. At University Health Network, there are 465 people off work, with 405 returning in seven days, the hospital said.
Toronto’s SickKids Hospital has 303 COVID-related staff absences, with 240 staff that have tested positive and 63 self-isolating due to an exposure.
At Hamilton Health Sciences, the only network CTV News Toronto asked that provided day-by-day numbers, 575 were self-isolating, up 77 from the day before, which was up 72 from the day before that.
Altogether that is 1,989 workers, not including several hospitals or hospital networks that didn’t respond to queries from CTV News, including William Osler Health Network.
“If you know anyone in health care, you’ll hear very familiar stories that we heard only a couple of months ago with people being out because they are infected or exposed to COVID-19, and some significant pressures on staffing,” said infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch.
“Just because this wave may not shape up to be the same size as the wave we just had, we’re still in the midst of one, and it’s still impacting the health care system and those working in it and obviously you should still take measures to protect yourself and those around you,” he said.
While some hospitals have announced outbreaks, it is possible that health-care workers are picking up the infection from out in the community, including schools, said emergency room physician Dr. Lisa Salamon-Switzman.
“When everyone is out and about, and kids in schools are not wearing masks, that puts their parents at risk of not being able to work,” she said in an interview.
“You can imagine in my department the group of physicians, if our kids get COVID we can’t work. And even a few of us not being able to work causes a huge crisis in our hospital,” she said.
She said the provincial government’s projections that the health care system can scale up to absorb a sixth wave may not be taking into account losing staff members to self-isolation.
“If all of a sudden nurses get sick or they can’t go to work, that’s a big deal. A bed is just a piece of furniture. You can have the beds, but if you don’t have the staff to take care of the people in those beds, it’s only a mattress,” she said.