London

Staffing shortages at LHSC could mean more cancelled surgeries and more overworked care providers

Southwestern Ontario's largest hospital network says its facing increasing pressures due to staffing shortages brought on by the sixth wave of the pandemic.

More than 600 staff were absent Thursday, half testing positive for COVID-19 and the rest for exposure

Mirroring the COVID-19 situation across the region, the hospital network has seen absences pick up in the last two weeks. (Colin Butler/CBC)

Southwestern Ontario's largest hospital network says its facing increasing pressures due to staffing shortages brought on by the sixth wave of the pandemic.

Officials with the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) said 321 staff members were out sick on Thursday after testing positive for COVID-19. That figure doesn't include the estimated 300 other staff who are self-isolating due to exposure to the virus.

"That volume of staff being off, it impacts our ability to provide services and puts significant strain on those of us that are able to come to work and provide care," said Dr. Adam Dukelow, the chief medical officer at LHSC.

Dukelow said the hospital network has seen absences pick up in the last two weeks. Thursday's absences, which span across many departments from cleaning personnel to nurses, are by far the highest the hospital has recorded over the course of the pandemic. 

"When we get really pushed into a corner, we can end up with a decrease in scheduled services and that's where you hear things like cancelling or postponing surgeries or interventions. The other impact, unfortunately, is sometimes we have to close care spots," he added. 

Possible surgery cancellations on the horizon

Dukelow said that high occupancy throughout the already overwhelmed system and the staff shortages have already prompted the hospital to cancel some surgeries to have enough staff to care for patients.

"Our staffing situation mirrors what is happening in the community, and if there's a lot of virus circulating in the community, then we will continue to see absences," said Dr. Wael Haddara, the chief of critical care medicine at LHSC.

"And so, unfortunately, we may get to the point where we have to cancel other surgeries and other procedures to accommodate for the combination of more COVID patients and staff absences." 

The situation at LHSC is not unique. Hospitals across the province are feeling the significant strain brought on by the sixth wave.

When asked Wednesday about what further steps the province would take to avoid postponing already long-delayed procedures, Health Minister Christine Elliott said the risk of that happening is not high because the province has added hospital beds and now has antiviral drugs to treat COVID-19.

"Whatever happens with respect to the pandemic, we can continue to care for the people with COVID, but also to continue with those surgeries that many people have been waiting for a long period of time," Elliott said.

"We don't want them to have to wait any longer."

Staff bracing for ER rush during holiday weekend 

Dukelow said most staff are being asked to work overtime in order to ensure hospital doors stay open and people can get the care they need at the Emergency Department. (Colin Butler/CBC)

To further complicate matters, the upcoming holiday long weekend typically means a surge in patients showing up at the emergency department. 

"As we get into summer, we start to see more trauma, more ATV, car accidents and motorbike accidents on the long weekends because people are out and about," Dukelow said.

Nevertheless, if people are sick or need care, they should still go to the emergency department, he said.

"If we have significant staffing shortages, that can force us to close some care spots for the emergency department and create longer wait times, but we will be there for the emergencies."

The best thing people can do to help the overwhelmed system, Dukelow said, is to stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccinations, including booster doses, to curb the amount of people requiring hospitalizations, and to continue to practice other measures, like wearing a mask in indoor public spaces and keeping social gatherings outdoors. 

"We're over two years into this and with people off sick, everyone's being asked to do overtime and extra work to keep the doors open to be available to our community, so if you have a chance, thank a healthcare worker," Dukelow added.

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