Nova Scotia

Lab official fears new normal of health staff absences if COVID not controlled

Dr. Todd Hatchette made the comments during an appearance at the Nova Scotia Legislature’s health committee on Tuesday. This week, almost 600 health-care workers are off the job for COVID-related reasons.

Dr. Todd Hatchette calls ongoing community spread in Nova Scotia 'concerning'

Dr. Todd Hatchette, seen in this file photo, is concerned hundreds of health-care workers off the job due to COVID-19 could become the new normal. (CBC News)

The head of Nova Scotia Health's central zone microbiology lab says hundreds of health-care workers off the job due to COVID-19 could become the new normal if the current outbreak isn't brought under control.

Dr. Todd Hatchette made the comments during an appearance at the legislature's health committee on Tuesday. Most recent data show an average of 1,000 PCR positive tests each day. This week, almost 600 health-care workers at the health authority are off the job for COVID-related reasons.

"I think the state of health-care has been tenuous because the number of people that are in it to support it has always been just enough," Hatchette told reporters.

"Now, if you add a number of people who are going to be absent, you have to account for that so that you can maintain the services that are needed."

'There is no silver bullet'

The interim CEO for Nova Scotia Health, Karen Oldfield, said if this is going to be the new normal then steps need to be taken to account for that. Oldfield said that could mean overstaffing to ensure service delivery.

But that's easier said than done in a system that, at the best of times, does not have enough doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals. The province bolstered the new health-care professional recruitment office with $9.8 million and 33 staff in the most recent budget.

Karen Oldfield, interim CEO of Nova Scotia Health, said recruiting efforts must be further increased in the face of COVID-related staffing shortages. (Nova Scotia Health)

"We have to turn over every single stone and we're going to have to go to retired folks, we're going to have to increase the recruitment efforts," Oldfield told reporters.

"There is no silver bullet. We have to do every possible thing that we can think of to get people back into the system."

The province has a backlog of more than 27,000 surgical cases and services were recently reduced again in the central zone due to COVID. Oldfield said the system is focusing on doing as many day surgeries as possible until it's able to ramp up capacity and resume doing more cases that require hospital stays for patients.

Several weeks ago, when surgeries were back close to 100 per cent, the system did 1,400 surgeries — 90 per cent of pre-pandemic levels — said Oldfield.

"The system is very resilient," she said.

She paid tribute to staff who keep coming to work each day and doing everything they can to deliver care in trying times.

"It can't get a whole lot worse. We're going to go forward and we're going to do the best we can in terms of the resources that we have."

Boosters improve immunity

Hatchette said that unless community spread can be stopped and infections reduced, cases will continue to stay high and, in turn, put pressure on the health-care system. People can help by wearing masks, distancing where appropriate and getting COVID-19 boosters, he said. Only about 64 per cent of Nova Scotians have a third shot.

"Getting your booster shot is actually a very effective way of increasing your body's own immunity to the Omicron virus."

With positivity rates continuing to hover around 30 per cent, Hatchette said he doesn't think this wave has peaked yet.

"That is the highest numbers we've seen. It is still creeping up. It is concerning that it's just an indicator of ongoing, unmitigated spread in the community."

Although some medical professionals and others have called for the province to restore the mask mandate for public places, Premier Tim Houston has resisted those calls, saying people know what they need to do and don't need a mandate from the government to know how to protect themselves and others.

Hatchette wouldn't offer comment on whether masks should be mandatory again, but said his own view is that everyone should wear one if they're going to be in a social situation where they're close to other people.

"It is something that can be done, should be done and there are behavioural scientists that suggest that mandates are an effective way to do that. I know that the public appetite for that is very low, as is the political appetite."

Oldfield would not comment on whether the government is doing enough to preserve the health-care system during the ongoing wave of the pandemic. Among the only public places where mask mandates remain in Nova Scotia are hospitals, long-term care homes, schools and Province House.

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