British Columbia

B.C. health-care workers prepare for Omicron with trepidation

With record high infection rates thanks to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant, B.C.'s health-care workers, already stretched thin, are preparing for yet another wave.

Yet another wave is hitting a system already stretched thin by the COVID-19 pandemic

A mural featuring health-care workers is pictured on Granville Street in Vancouver on April 20, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As the Omicron variant sends case rates skyrocketing in British Columbia, health-care workers in the province are preparing for yet another wave after being stretched thin by a relentless year.

"I can certainly tell you there's a sense of trepidation with this Omicron wave. We've been through so many waves before and in some respects, we know what to expect," said Dr. Matthew Chow, a psychiatrist and the president of Doctors of B.C. 

"It's certainly not the Christmas gift that anybody wanted right at the end of an already tiring year."

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told CBC on Wednesday that resources in the health-care system are already strained.

"It's just a very difficult time right now because if we don't take these measures right now and do get a surge of people in our health-care system, it's going to affect everybody," she said. 

In fact, a report from an independent COVID-19 modelling group predicts hospitalizations due to Omicron will reach unprecedented heights by around mid-January. This week, B.C.'s daily COVID-19 case counts smashed records three days in a row.

Tough timing

The timing, Chow says, is especially tough.

"People that normally would have had vacation time breaks were not able to do so, because even during downtime we needed to catch up with things like postponed procedures, tests and surgeries, and postponed care for people. There really hasn't been much of a let up this whole two year period," he said. 

Danette Thomsen, the interim vice-president  of the B.C. Nurses' Union, said staffing issues exacerbate the problem. 

"Workloads are overwhelming. Our long-term care nurses are having to stay double shifts, often time 16-hour shifts, because there is no one coming in to replace them," Thomsen said. 

She said a survey conducted among the union's members earlier in the year revealed 82 per cent of respondents have had mental health impacts due to the pandemic, and 65 per cent have had physical health impacts.

More alarmingly, she said, is the number of nurses who are seriously considering leaving the profession: 35 per cent of nurses overall and 51 per cent of those working in intensive care and emergency wards.

"Those numbers are staggering. We're so short nurses already," she said. 

Supports needed

Thomsen said other health-care workers like care aids, porters and administrative workers are needed to relieve the burden on nurses to do their jobs at the level of care they strive for. 

"It is difficult to go to work when you know you will have 65-per-cent staffing levels and 110-per-cent patient levels, knowing that you're unable to provide quality care to all of the people you are tasked with," she said. 

"Those things are morally distressing for our members."

With files from The Early Edition and On The Island