Prince George registered nurse Tracey Jonker is dreading a return to work on the COVID ward at the University Hospital of Northern B.C. after a break to fulfil other duties since October, when the Delta wave of the virus was filling beds.
The hospital isn’t as busy with the Omicron variant, but she expects that won’t last. With all previous waves of COVID-19, nurses in the North had the benefit of watching cases rise elsewhere, giving them a few weeks to brace for the wave of hospitalizations to break at their hospital.
“Never, never in my wildest nightmare did I think that we would still be in this and worse, actually, than it was in the beginning,” Junker, a nurse of 17 years, said as the second anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in B.C. approaches.
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived with its first known case in B.C. on Feb. 1, 2020, and hit an already understaffed health-care system in which Jonker and her colleagues were “working short every day.”
“You just feel like you’ve aged so much during this, it has been beyond stressful,” Jonker said.
Case counts are no longer reliable as a measure of the pandemic with B.C. reporting an average 2,100 new infections a day last week but with testing that has been limited to people older than 80, immune-compromised and others at high risk.
COVID-19 hospitalizations have become the marker that health officials use — and those hit a record 924 on Friday with 130 patients in intensive care.
Last week, regional health authorities cancelled or rescheduled non-urgent surgeries to cope with unplanned staff shortages caused largely by Omicron infections, just as they braced for patient admissions with Omicron.
In the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Health authorities alone, those cancellations added up to 282 surgeries.
“To know that it’s going off 22 months (later), it’s mind blowing,” Jonker said.
Dr. Bonnie Henry has hinted that the Omicron wave might soon crest based on modelling, but COVID-19 has already exhausted the system.
In a briefing Friday, the provincial health officer and Health Minister Adrian Dix detailed how B.C. will manage COVID-19, similar to how the province handles endemic respiratory illnesses, such as influenza.
“We cannot eliminate all risk, and I think that’s something that we need to understand as this virus has changed and has become part of what we will be living with for years to come,” Henry said.
Dix said that the number of health-care workers calling in sick eased last week, with 7,952 absences for the period between Jan. 17 to 19, compared to more than 11,000 for the period of Jan. 10 to 12, “which is a significant reduction, although significantly above (normal).”
“We’re committed to restoring all services that have been interrupted in the weeks to come,” Dix said.
But the system has a “staffing crisis” rather than shortage, said the B.C. Nurses’ Union president, Aman Grewal.
Two years into the pandemic, Grewal would like to see Dix focus on increasing capacity by adding more student spaces in nursing schools and expediting the recognition of foreign-trained nurses.
Nurses, Grewal said, are “just tired, they’re exhausted.”
“Many are suffering from PTSD and moral distress. When you are seeing death day in, day out, that has a significant affect your mental health.”
The pandemic has illustrated B.C.’s health care system needs to be “reimagined” in a way that gives the public confidence that it will have the surge capacity to handle such problems in the future, said Dr. Srinivas Murthy, a clinical associate professor in pediatrics in the University of B.C.’s faculty of medicine.
COVID-19 will persist in waves and none of what has happened should have taken authorities by surprise, Murthy said.
“People say Omicron was a surprise, Delta was surprise, but really they’re not,” Murthy said. “They’re exactly what should have been expected based on our global levels of vaccination.”
If B.C. had chosen to focus on hospital capacity, training new nurses, respiratory therapists and other professionals starting in 2020, they could have been in place for this 2022 surge, Murthy said.
“Obviously that would cost money. Obviously that would be a big deal,” Murthy said. “But if we had that foresight, we’d be in a much better place than we are right now.
Instead, “we sort of hoped that the pandemic would go away — and it hasn’t.”
There also needs to be a continued focus on vaccination in both B.C. and globally, said infectious disease expert Dr. Brian Conway.
“Globally, what’s going to hurt us right now is the vaccination rates that are occurring throughout the world,” said Conway, president and medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre.
Vaccination rates in less-developed countries remain low enough that there are high levels of community spread of COVID-19, which is what causes he mutations that leads new variants.
“And that’s the one thing that could halt our recovery here,” Conway said. “So we have every interest to develop strategies to now vaccinate the world more efficiently.”
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