'COVID isn't gone': Health P.E.I. CEO warns of staffing shortages as cases rise
'People are tired. We know the burnout rate is much higher than it's ever been among health-care workers'
The CEO of Health P.E.I. says hospitals are having to "squeak by" every day because of staffing shortages stemming from a recent rise in COVID-19 cases, with further shortages expected to continue this summer.
CEO Michael Gardam said in an interview with CBC News: Compass on Friday the province's health-care system is not resilient enough to handle a sudden surge of patients.
"People are tired. We know the burnout rate is much higher than it's ever been among health-care workers. And then finally, you add on that to the fact that COVID isn't gone," he said.
"And so in the last couple of weeks, we've seen an uptick in cases. Our cases in staff have essentially doubled over the last week."
To get more staff working, Gardam said Health P.E.I. has offered bonuses for additional shifts and called back people from vacation.
Health P.E.I. is also prioritizing staffing at Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Prince County Hospital because they have the largest emergency departments and people may be transferred there anyway, which is the reason why there's been closures at other ERs across the Island.
Gardam said it is hard to gauge how the rising COVID-19 case trend in the province will affect the health-care system, but that it's "certainly not going to make it better."
"We know in other parts of the world, some parts of Europe, for example, they've had quite a dramatic increase in hospitalizations. We haven't seen that," he said.
"We have a very high rate of vaccination. We have a moderately good rate of booster shots. Everybody should get their booster shots. But I don't know. Nobody knows if this is going to be as bad as it was in January or if two weeks from now we're saying, you know what, COVID has eased off. We just have to sort of assume the worst."
P.E.I.'s COVID-19 test positivity rate is 43.1 per cent, according to the province's weekly update last Tuesday. Cases were up 32 per cent compared to the previous week.
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist, said that while the data is somewhat concerning, it isn't "panic-inducing."
"This is a difficult kind of 'in-between time' because I don't think we're quite at the point of saying that COVID is like the other respiratory viruses. But it is not the same threat that it was in 2020, 2021, because we do have very good vaccination rates," she said on Compass earlier this week.
"If you're up-to-date on your vaccines, if you've been vaccinated or infected within the last few months or so, you can feel reasonably confident that you can behave in a fairly normal fashion."
But Saxinger said some caution is still warranted and that while it may be a tough decision for most jurisdictions, reimposing mask mandates could help ease some of the strain in the health-care system.
"I actually think that masking indoors for the foreseeable future is a completely responsible thing to do," she said. "It really does need to be on the table to put mask requirements back in place."
Saxinger said promoting booster shots in the summer ahead of the return to schools in the fall as to avoid an epidemic of multiple respiratory viruses also makes sense.
Last week, P.E.I. announced anyone who is over 12 years old can get a second booster.
In the meantime, Gardam said that hospitals are treating those with serious issues quickly, and it is only those with more simpler problems will have to wait for longer.
The provincial health authority warned of longer wait times at emergency departments across the Island ahead of Canada Day because of staffing problems.
"People ... are coming in for more minor issues because they don't have a primary-care provider, and that's sort of their one option on the weekend," said Gardam.
"This is something that's happening across the country right now. It's a very difficult time for everybody in terms of our health-care system."
With files from CBC News: Compass