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B.C. nurses, doctors exhausted as next COVID-19 peak comes this week: spokespeople

VANCOUVER — While the most challenging days of COVID-19 are predicted to be ahead for British Columbia’s health-care system, representatives for doctors and nurses say their members are on the verge of a possible collapse. Doctors of BC president Dr.
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VANCOUVER — While the most challenging days of COVID-19 are predicted to be ahead for British Columbia’s health-care system, representatives for doctors and nurses say their members are on the verge of a possible collapse. 

Doctors of BC president Dr. Ramneek Dosanjh said it has been an overwhelming three years for her members. 

"I am hearing from some doctors who are just ready to quit," she said in an interview.

The organization represents 16,000 physicians in the province. 

"People have shared their honest feelings with me and they're feeling so consumed. They're emotionally exhausted. They're feeling depleted," she said.

"They're seeing their patients suffer. They're also under such constraints."

Aman Grewal, president of the BC Nurses Union, said nurses are under "incredible pressure" to balance family and work responsibilities, which doesn't leave them with enough downtime to take care of themselves.

"They are facing verbal and physical harassment from some members of the public who are becoming increasingly frustrated with this ongoing public health crisis," she said. The organization represents 48,000 nurses.

"This, you know, has been an ongoing issue — violence toward nurses and it's very morally distressing to know that our members are having to face that all while they are trying to care for their patients." 

On Friday, provincial health care officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the latest wave fuelled by the Omicron variant may have peaked in parts of B.C., but there's a lag between infections and those who end up in hospital. That means difficult days are ahead for hospitals and their staff, Henry said. 

Interior Health announced temporary changes on Tuesday to deal with staffing challenges. Inpatient services will be closed to stabilize emergency departments in some communities, overnight hours will be reduced to ensure staff is available during the day in others and some non-urgent surgeries will be rescheduled, it said in a news release.

The representatives of doctors and nurses said health-care workers are also facing a shortage of personal protective equipment, including masks.

Dosanjh said doctors need more support on the ground, like more family physicians who can share the burden, less paperwork and better infrastructure support such as universal health records so that the same tests are not repeated.

"A lot of people are seeing patients from 8 a.m. till 8 at night and then doing the paperwork. The days are usually very long for most physicians."

On Tuesday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C.'s health-care workers have been performing well under enormous pressure to get the province through the pandemic and overdose crisis. 

"I am unceasingly thankful for their determination, endurance and skill."

The week of Jan. 10-16, he said 17,958 health care workers called in sick for a variety of reasons including COVID-19. That compares with 7,573 who were sick the same week last year, he said. 

B.C. Emergency Health Services, which employs 4,000 paramedics and dispatchers in the province, said there were 33 people off sick on Jan. 6 last year, while 70 people were ill this year. 

Vancouver Coastal Health said in a statement its hospitals mirror what's happening in the communities, which means they are still seeing COVID-19 cases. 

Fraser Health said all emergency departments are fully operational, and while they are seeing an increased number of sick calls due to COVID-19, operational teams have a plan in place to mitigate against impact on staff and access to care.

No staff who have knowingly tested positive for COVID-19 have been called into work, said a statement from the health authority. 

Grewal said there are not enough resources to help nurses deal with their own mental well-being amid the increasing fatigue, anxiety and relentless slog starting to take its toll.

A nurse working four shifts in a row might have seen one death before the pandemic, she said. 

"And here these nurses are seeing several deaths and several deaths of patients who are their age. They're not elderly who are always the ones who are dying," she said.

"You know, our nurses are humans as well." 

It is important for everyone to pay attention to burnout, Dosanjh said, because if more health-care workers are lost to it then patients suffer. 

Her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in May 2020 and died last April.

"He was alone and then had to undergo his chemotherapy alone. And then he had surgery alone and was in the hospital alone," she said.

"There's so many factors that affect our burnout."

Health care is a calling where doctors and nurses are seen as invincible and stoic figures, Dosanjh said. 

"We have feelings. We're real people. We share our patients' pain, we really do," she said. "The world needs to recognize that we're humans, you know." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2022.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press