EROs are ‘stretched to the limit’ in NS thanks to Omicron at Christmas

The aggressive Omicron variant that has led to a record number of COVID-19 infections in Nova Scotia is pushing the already overstretched emergency room to its limits, according to a frontline Halifax doctor.

dr. Kirk Magee, who oversees emergency care at hospitals in the Halifax area, said that while the Omicron variant may not send more people to the hospital, it has a serious effect on the health care system — starting with the emergency room.

“The emergency department is like a glass of red wine on a white table, linen cloth,” he said. “And when you’re close to the edge, one more drop makes a terrible mess — and we’re really close to the edge.”

The province announced one death and 678 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday. There were 48 people in hospital, seven of whom were in the ICU.

dr. Kirk Magee is an emergency room physician in Halifax who oversees emergency care in hospitals in the Halifax area. (Nova Scotia Health)

Magee said the system is being “stretched to its limits” because of the rapidly spreading virus — not because of the number of people needing hospital care, but because of the hundreds of hospital workers who have been assigned or sidelined due to COVID-19 infection or the need to to isolate.

More than 430 employees were unavailable for work in the central zone Friday, Magee said. That number does not include the 162 health workers across the province who are out of work for failing to provide vaccination certificates.

More pressure on the system

“Emergency medicine is very cyclical,” Magee said, adding that emergency care usually gets especially tense around the holidays.

This year is different, he says.

“We have a health care system that was already pretty weak…. Then we added two years of COVID and then suddenly Omicron came along and that really derailed things.”

Nearly all beds in Nova Scotia’s acute care and intensive care units that are currently occupied were occupied last week, according to figures from the provincial health authority.

dr. Nicole Boutilier, vice president of medicine for Nova Scotia Health, said 94 people were waiting for admissions on Friday, but that number jumped to 125 earlier this week.

In December 2021, there were 2,100 more emergency room visits across the province than in December 2020, which Boutilier says is a reflection of pressures beyond the current outbreak.

People will wait in emergency rooms, but Boutilier said people who need services should keep coming and will be seen and assessed.

Other non-emergency units have been closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks, Magee said.

“In a system that is very fragile, removing all those beds from the system means patients in need have nowhere to go,” he said.

“It means we can’t unload patients, and that means paramedics can’t unload patients in distress, so it’s a cascading effect throughout the system.”

Care in corridors, longer waiting times

As a result, emergency physicians handle acute care in hallways and patients sometimes wait 10 to 12 hours, which Magee says is “really far outside any industry standard.”

“Actually, the only beds that are often available are critical resuscitation beds and even then it’s difficult,” he said.

Magee calls on the province to find space in long-term care homes for the hundreds of people who no longer need hospital care but are in hospital beds.

He also urges Nova Scotians to only go to the emergency room when they need urgent care.

Like everyone else, Magee said he and his colleagues are tired and frustrated by this latest wave of the pandemic, but praised them for continuing in a difficult environment.

“It’s stressful because we can’t provide the care we want to give,” he said. “Our teams are people; they do this because they have a passion for delivering high-quality care, and they know that waiting is detrimental to our patients.”

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