Soaring staff COVID infections prompt hospitals to cancel surgeries

Healthcare worker COVID-19 infections — among the highest since the start of the pandemic — are driving canceled or delayed surgeries and reduced emergency department hours and capacity at several hospitals across the region. province.

Staff absences are also forcing hospitals to redeploy nurses to replace sick colleagues and to ask some to work overtime to lessen the impact on patient care — a situation that contributes to burnout, according to front line workers.

New data from Ontario’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table shows that the number of acute care healthcare workers infected with the virus each day is at the same level as at the height of the last Omicron wave, and is likely even higher because the official numbers come only from polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing, which is not required by all Ontario hospitals for sick staff.

“Taking out a large number of workers due to exposure or illness means we have to reduce the number of patients we care for. That’s not always possible,” said Dr Wael Haddara, head of intensive care at London Health Sciences Center (LHSC), which had to close part of its emergency department last week due to the number of nurses. sick.

“Hospitals can reduce ‘elective’ patients, but not emergency patients. And so surgeries, procedures and appointments are canceled while hospitals move nursing staff to cover shortages in critical areas… It might be doable in the short term, but after two long years healthcare workers are about to break.

The situation is similar to what other Ontario hospitals have faced in recent days and weeks.

A Star survey of the province’s 14 largest hospital systems finds that more than 2,900 healthcare workers are currently on sick leave due to contracting or being exposed to COVID. This includes 400 at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, 317 at University Health Network, 325 at Hamilton Health Sciences, 260 at Sinai Health, 230 at Trillium Health Partners, 227 at William Osler Health System and 210 at Unity Health.

While these numbers are small compared to the total number of healthcare workers in the province, it still means patients are feeling the impact of an overburdened system.

In addition to being forced to reduce the capacity of its emergency department, the LHSC also had to cancel heart surgery due to a shortage of intensive care staff and had to ask other hospitals in the region to accepting patient transfers over the past three weeks, Haddara said. There are currently 283 LHSC employees on sick leave due to COVID, which is comparable to what the hospital saw during the Omicron wave in January.

St. Marys Memorial Hospital in the town of St. Marys, about 40 minutes north of London, closed its overnight emergency department this week due to a COVID-related staff shortage.

“We regret being in this situation again, but the immediate pressures on staff resulting from our current COVID-19 outbreak make the temporary reduction of hours the most responsible and safest decision available to us,” he said. President and CEO Andrew Williams said in a statement.

On Monday, Cambridge Memorial Hospital was forced to close its COVID assessment center early due to staff shortages caused by the virus. It also warns that high patient volumes combined with continued staffing shortages mean longer wait times in its emergency department.

At Kingston Health Sciences Center, more staff have become ill from COVID infection in recent weeks than at any other time during the pandemic, the hospital told The Star in a statement, which has noted that at the height of last week, the hospital averaged about 170 sick people at any one time.

As of Wednesday, the hospital had about 120 sick people. This number does not take into account people who cannot work because they are self-isolating due to close contact with an infection in their household – a number which the hospital says could represent 40 to 100 more people per day. .

The hospital has yet to regain 100% surgical capacity due to staff members testing positive for COVID during the sixth wave, and in recent weeks it has seen cancellations. operating rooms for non-emergency procedures when he was unable to redeploy staff and physicians to fill the gaps in schedules.

Burnout and stress levels are at an ‘all-time high’ at The Ottawa Hospital, said registered nurse Rachel Muir, who spent 27 of her 34 years in the hospital on her birthing unit .

Muir said last week 450 staff members were on sick leave at The Ottawa Hospital. A hospital spokesperson did not provide updated figures when requested by the Star.

“Our staffing levels have been in crisis for so long,” said Muir, also the Ontario Nurses Association bargaining unit president for the hospital. “It’s a rare shift where you come in with full staff, and if you do, you rarely keep your full staff because there’s another unit that’s had three or four sick calls.”

She said it’s not just nurses who are affected, but also professions such as technologists, respiratory therapists, occupational therapists and social workers.

“Basically every frontline worker you would encounter in a health care setting.”

Toronto-area hospitals, while still experiencing staff absences due to COVID, say they have been able to avoid major service disruptions or surgery cancellations in recent times.

“If you’re really sick and need the procedure, it’s done,” said Dr. John Granton, critical care physician at the University Health Network, who added that some procedures may be delayed depending on the severity. of the patient’s condition.

He said if staff who perform specific roles such as intensive care nurses, respiratory therapists or perfusionists, who operate pumps for bypass cases, are sick in large enough numbers, it can have a “tremendous impact on the ability to do care in a specific niche programs.”

Although UHN does not see staff absences at the same level as the last wave, Granton said that when there is a cluster of sick people, nurses may need to take on additional patients – contributing to the burnout – or moving patients to other units to be cared for, which can impact the ability of those units to perform surgeries.

“It has a ripple effect on other areas that need to be backfilled to make sure we can support these emerging cases,” he said. “It puts pressure when you try to increase your operations and bring people in for their heart surgery and their cancer surgery and now the ICU is pretty full because we don’t have the actual number of beds because that there are nurses on sick leave.”


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