Rising COVID-19 cases taking toll on Edmonton hospital staff

Maintaining appropriate staffing levels in Edmonton hospitals as COVID-19 cases continue to climb is a challenge, and staff are burning out, some doctors warn.

More health-care workers contracting illness, forced to self-isolate during second wave

Health care workers put on personal protective equipment before testing at a drive-thru COVID-19 assessment centre at the Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto on Tuesday, April 7, 2020. Health officials and the government have asked that people stay inside to help curb the spread of the coronavirus also known as COVID-19. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Maintaining appropriate staffing levels in Edmonton hospitals has been a challenge as COVID-19 cases continue to climb and some doctors warn that staff are burning out.

Hospitals were already understaffed before the pandemic began, said Dr. Shazma Mithani, an emergency room physician who works at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital and Stollery Children's Hospital.

The second wave of COVID-19 cases in the region is  putting a strain on health-care workers, Mithani said Monday during an interview with Edmonton AM.

"It's very challenging over the last nine months, we've certainly been at the brink of burnout or through different phases of burnout," she said.

"Now with these rising numbers, we know that there's a big wave coming. And so we're bracing ourselves, getting as ready as we can, resting when we can."

As cases rise, more staff are becoming ill or having to take time off work to care for sick loved ones, said Dr. David Zygun, Edmonton zone medical director with AHS.

"We have had challenges with staffing that, of course, weren't present before in the initial phases because we hadn't seen this in the community," Zygun said Friday in an interview.

Workers in facilities with outbreaks must self-isolate as contact tracing is underway, he said.

"That creates further staffing challenges," he said. "Quite quickly, our staff can change dramatically."

As of Monday, the following Edmonton hospitals were dealing with outbreaks:

  • Misericordia Community Hospital (14 staff infected)
  • Grey Nuns Community Hospital (16 staff infected)
  • Royal Alexandra Hospital (11 staff infected)
  • University of Alberta Hospital (3 staff infected)

An outbreak at the Edmonton General Continuing Care Centre had by Friday led to 51 active COVID-19 cases among staff members.

Health-care staff are working mandatory overtime to fill the gaps and fatigue has set in, Zygun said.

"The ability of our staff to take up extra shifts or extra overtime is decreasing due to the ongoing nature of this."

It's unfair and unsafe to ask staff members to continue shouldering that burden, said Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta.

The HSAA represents 27,000 health-care workers, including paramedics and respiratory therapists. 

"It is putting the people on the front lines in a very precarious position," Parker said. 

"We cannot sustain code red with ambulances. We cannot sustain ICUs that don't have staff or staff that are working 18 hours a day just to keep the machines running."

He called on the Alberta government to put in place tighter restrictions to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

"We need to act and we need to act with leadership. We need to use medical science instead of opinions and ideologies and control this thing now, because we cannot wait any longer."

With files from Wallis Snowdon.