Health workers fear case surge after Thanksgiving gatherings

"We fully expect that the situation is going to get worse, which is really hard to believe," said a Saskatoon intensive care specialist.

Leader Post 4 minute read October 12, 2021

Walking in to work in one of Saskatoon’s intensive care units these days has Dr. Hassan Masri feeling more frustrated than ever before in the pandemic.

This fourth wave of COVID-19 has brought record-high numbers of hospitalizations, but it isn’t the first time his unit has been mostly filled with COVID-19 patients. What makes this wave more frustrating than its three predecessors is that nearly all of the recent record-high hospitalizations and deaths could have been prevented, said Masri, an intensive care specialist.

In earlier waves, Masri saw individuals and the provincial government working together to do what they could to protect people. The province had imposed masking mandates, gathering limits and a slew of other public health measures. People were staying home as much as possible.

This time around, gathering limits are non-existent and masking was only recently re-implemented. More than a quarter of Saskatchewan’s eligible population is not yet fully vaccinated, despite vaccines being readily available for months.

“It’s very frustrating walking into the ICU knowing that 80 per cent of the patients that are breathless or fighting for life did not have to be there. And that we, as a society, as a government, could have done more and the people themselves could have done more to protect themselves,” Masri said in a recent interview.

“Every day it’s the same story, right? More COVID patients. Unvaccinated. Could have been prevented.”

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When Premier Scott Moe held a news conference on Thursday ahead of the Thanksgiving long weekend, Masri had been hopeful some future hospitalizations would be prevented with the reimplementation of gathering limits and other public health measures.

Instead, Moe announced the province was activating its Provincial Command to lead the pandemic’s emergency management response. No new measures were announced.

When asked what he thought of the Thursday announcement, Masri sighed deeply before calling it “extremely disappointing.”

Now, after a Thanksgiving weekend without gathering limits, he expects to see a surge in new cases and hospitalizations within the next two weeks, increasing his workload even more.

“We fully expect that the situation is going to get worse, which is really hard to believe,” Masri said. “I can’t even imagine what worse than this would look like.”

Tracy Zambory, president of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses, also fears a surge in cases and hospitalizations spurred on by family gatherings. She fears that surge will cause the province to formally start triaging patients, forcing health care workers to decide who gets life-saving care and who does not.

She criticized Moe for changing up the pandemic response command structure and redeploying health care workers while doing little to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“I’m hearing it every day from members that we’re getting to the point of no return, and nobody wants to have to start making decisions about who gets the care they need and who doesn’t,” she said.

“We’re in a worse shape than when all of these rules were in place before. We need to have these rules reinstated.”

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Already nurses across the province are having to treat critically ill patients in units not meant for them, Zambory said. With ICUs activating surge capacity and still full, she said some patients who would normally be in ICU are now being treated in medicine units.

“The people working on the medicine ward are absolutely petrified for their patients … because they don’t have everything required to make sure that these people are being cared for safely and properly,” she said.

These working conditions have been wearing on health care workers. Masri said morale among hospital staff has dropped noticeably during the fourth wave and the sombre mood can be felt within minutes of stepping foot inside the building.

Zambory said nurses feel unsupported by the province as their increasingly desperate calls for more public health measures go unheeded.

“They’re feeling abandoned. They’re feeling despondent, burned out, anxious, depressed, and they just want this to end,” she said.

That’s why Zambory and her husband chose to celebrate Thanksgiving apart from their two children, who live in different cities, opting instead to visit with them virtually over FaceTime.

“Does it hurt? Oh, absolutely it does. My husband and I want to see our kids,” said Zambory.

She hopes other families made a similar decision.