As a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Saskatoon, Tamara Hinz is in and out of the emergency department responding to mental health crises.
Fall is already typically a busy time in her department as youth mental health challenges rise around the start of the school year, but now emergency is already overwhelmed and she often struggles to find space to assess patients experiencing a mental health crisis.
“We really can’t just treat somebody in a hallway. It’s lots of personal and confidential information being shared,” Hinz said. “We wait hours sometimes for a room or a space that’s private enough to be able to do that kind of assessment.”
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Saskatchewan has been trending upward since the beginning of August. On Aug. 1, there were 48 people in hospital, including 11 in ICU. By Tuesday, those numbers had skyrocketed to 225 total hospitalizations, including 43 in ICU.
Two of the people in acute care are children under the age of 12. Of the province’s record-breaking 506 new cases, 101 are also in children under the age of 12 — the most of any age group.
The surge capacity plan for Hinz’s child psychiatry unit, should they need more than their 10 beds, is to move some patients to the Jim Pattison Children’s Hospital. But when that hospital is also feeling COVID-19 pressures, surge capacity is not available.
“We’re definitely feeling the squeeze on a few of those fronts,” she said, noting ongoing COVID-19 pressures have caused a lot of health care workers to burn out.
“It’s not unusual now to have entire shifts where a third of the nursing positions are just going uncovered. People are tired and you can only go so much further when the tank is empty.”
Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone told reporters on Monday there had been a 160 per cent growth in unfilled shifts in July this year compared to the same month last year.
To combat staffing shortages, Premier Scott Moe implemented an emergency order allowing thousands of health-care workers to be shuffled into other jobs as needed. A similar order had been in place earlier in the pandemic.
NDP labour critic Carla Beck said this emergency order does not ensure health-care workers’ needs are being met and criticized the province for not finishing negotiations with health-care unions that were already underway.
“What I’m hearing from health-care workers today is, again, they feel like they’ve been dealt a blow by this government,” Beck told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.
Hinz said the emergency order is “quite frustrating and demoralizing.” Her position does not fall under the emergency order, but she fears her staff who do may be redeployed to acute care.
“It feels a bit like a slap in the face to health-care workers that, because our government wants to give completely free rein to its citizens, that that means really clamping down and further dictating the work of health-care workers in a way that feels a bit ironic to me,” she said.
In an emailed statement, Moe said the province “remains concerned” by the COVID-19 pressures on the health-care system.
“Consultations with Saskatchewan’s Chief Medical Health Officer continue and will inform further actions on how we can protect this capacity. As we have previously stated, enacting additional measures has not been ruled out,” the statement said, while pointing to the limited measures the province introduced on Friday.
NDP calls for protest-free ‘safe zone’ around hospitals
Hearing of protesters outside hospitals harassing health-care workers and denying the realities of COVID-19 only makes Hinz feel more demoralized.
Although Hinz said she has not had a personal confrontation with a protester, she recently received a staff email advising health-care workers of what they should do if there is a protest outside their workplace.
“That’s absolutely the last thing that I think any health-care worker needs to deal with right now. We’ve just been working absolutely full-out for the past year and a half and that just really feels like salt in the wound,” she said.
To protect health-care workers from these protests, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili and NDP justice critic Nicole Sarauer called on the provincial government to enact a provincial health order, creating “safe zones” around hospitals and other health care facilities. This would make it illegal for people to protest within a certain distance of these facilities.
The size of the safe zone and whether it would be temporary or permanent would be decided by the province.
“There’s no excuse for why it can’t be done now and why health care workers and families can’t be protected today,” Sarauer said.
In a statement posted on social media Tuesday, Saskatchewan Attorney General and Justice Minister Gord Wyant decried the protests at health facilities.
“Our government condemns these actions in the strongest possible terms,” Wyant wrote, adding that while the right to peaceful protest remains sacrosanct, “the actions of the misguided and misinformed individuals who harass frontline healthcare workers and hospital patients are incredibly disappointing.”
Wyant went on to note that obstructing entry to a public facility such as a hospital, or intimidating, assaulting or interfering with those trying to get inside are criminal offences.
“We trust in the ability of Saskatchewan law enforcement to address these violations as appropriate,” Wyant wrote.