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Healthcare staffing thin as COVID-19 cases spike

Surgical procdures are among those getting bumped as understaffed healthcare services scramble to deal with the spike in COVID-19 cases. – © David Mark / Pixabay

By Jaymie L. White

Special to the Appalachian

STEPHENVILLE – With the province currently sitting at just under 6,000 active COVID-19 cases, the province is at Alert Level 4. Given the skyrocketing number of cases, Newfoundland and Labrador may remain at this level for some time.

For over a week, daily case numbers have consistently been above 400 and COVID testing numbers are at record-breaking levels. The significant increase in cases and tests being administered has placed a strain on an already fragile healthcare system that is suffering from a staffing shortage in every region. By Monday, Jan. 10 health authorities confirmed that samples were being sent out of province for testing.

On the West coast, the staffing shortage has been on the radar for years, with an especially severe decline in the number and availability of family physicians. Western Health announced on Jan. 4 that service disruptions are to be expected over the next month as staff members are being moved to other program areas that are currently requiring more support. This included the cancellation of outpatient laboratory services up to Jan. 10.

MHA Tony Wakeham (Stephenville – Port au Port) said the region has seen numerous challenges within the healthcare system long before now.

“We have seen this with delays in appointments, with delays in accessing specialists, with delays in getting tests done, and now everything is pretty much shut down when it comes to any service outside of an emergency service.”

Wakeham said the staff that would normally be there to work in the operating rooms or deal with other areas are now being pulled to help deal with the outbreaks.

“We have a limited number of staff in our healthcare facilities and they are working their darnedest. They’re working hard. They’re putting in long hours to try and keep up with the demands that are being placed on them.”

Wakeham said it is time for the province to utilize all the necessary tools available to them.

“The province has gotten to the point now where there are so many cases out there that they’ve basically given up on contact tracing. One of the things that we’ve asked for and we’ve been talking about for a while is the idea of using rapid tests as one of the tools in your toolbox. It seems that other provinces in Canada have certainly adopted a more proactive approach with the use of rapid tests. Our province – when I looked at the most recent statistics available for December on the federal government website – we had received over 600,000 rapid tests but had actually only used 25,000.”

Wakeham said it is clearly something Newfoundland and Labrador should have been taking advantage of all along, whereas the province now seems to be playing catch up.

“Anything that we can do to help our healthcare workers in the job they are trying to do and cope with, we should be doing it.”

Wakeham said every province seems to be following similar guidelines to combat the spread, but everyone needs to keep in mind what they can do to help.

“I think the idea of wearing your mask, washing your hands, and physical distancing are very important. We can’t lose sight of the basic things that we, as individuals, can be doing to prevent the spread of this particular virus. There’s an onus on individuals – all of us – to do our part to try and keep this virus from spreading.”

Mayor Tom Rose has been vocal regarding the need to attract and retain healthcare professionals to the area, and heaps high praise on local healthcare workers.

“My heart goes out to them. We are closing in at about 1,000 healthcare workers across this province that are isolating because they have symptoms or they have COVID, and I feel it personally. My wife is on the vaccine clinic and my daughter works in the emergency department at the hospital. All the healthcare professionals are doing their part to keep us safe and it’s very challenging. I can’t say enough about the measures that have been taken by the province and how important they are.”

Rose said that being in Alert Level 4, the best thing people can do to help is to follow the necessary guidelines put in place by the provincial government.

“With COVID-19, the Omicron variant has some breakouts in the region and it’s very transmissible. I can’t say enough about the tagline from Dr. Fitzgerald when she says ‘Hold Fast’. We need to stay in our bubbles. When you go to pick up groceries now, if you have gloves to wear, personal protective equipment, your face masks and face shields, we must use every measure possible to stay safe because this virus is so transmissible.”

Rose believes that, based on current data from all levels of government, Omicron will eventually run its course and become part of the yearly routine much the same as influenza, where an individual can choose to have a yearly shot.

“I believe in the science. This is not the first time there has been a pandemic. They know what happens. It is challenging, but we have to have hope and we have to keep moving forward.”

On the positive side, Rose pointed out that Newfoundland and Labrador has an extremely high vaccination rate, which certainly helps.

“The good news is for those who have the double vaccination and even their booster, I’ve heard of people who have very little symptoms with COVID-19. But the scary thing is that there are still people out there who don’t believe in the science of these vaccines and COVID may have more adverse affects on them and their families.”

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