December 10, 2023

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This COVID-19 wave is about ‘health-care worker crunch’

With hundreds of P.E.I. health-care workers forced into quarantine by COVID-19 infections and limited staff for long-term care beds, nurses are suggesting a different approach may be required for this wave of the pandemic.

There are about 6,500 health-care staff on P.E.I., including part-timers and casuals. As of mid-April, more than 1,000 of them had tested positive for COVID and had to self-isolate for a week.

Last week, the P.E.I. Legislature heard there were more than 100 long-term care beds empty on P.E.I. because there is no one to staff them, and there have been concerns expressed about how full hospitals are.

The P.E.I. Nurses’ Union says some of its members have questioned why they can’t keep going to work in full personal protective equipment (PPE), given the strain staying home puts on the health-care system.

Mortality rates down in this wave

Infection control physician Dr. Alon Vaisman of the University of Toronto says he’s been hearing a lot of this debate in health-care circles.

“This wave is more, predominantly, about health-care worker crunch, not having availability of health-care workers due to the transmissibility of this variant, more so than it is about high mortality among patients,” said Vaisman.

Mortality rates are down for a number of reasons, said Vaisman. A large majority of people are fully vaccinated, there are better treatments available, and the Omicron variant itself is less virulent than previous strains.

Catching COVID may be less harmful than missing out on vital care, says Dr. Alon Vaisman. (CBC)

Given this situation, he said, there is an argument to be made that it makes sense to allow some workers infected with the coronavirus to put on full PPE and go back to work, particularly if they are asymptomatic and fully vaccinated.

“When you think about the risk-benefit in certain scenarios it will favour bringing these individuals back to work sooner,” said Vaisman.

“Even if patients do pick up Omicron, considering the risks of not receiving care — for example life-saving surgeries, life-saving therapies — then the risk perhaps is not as high with Omicron.”

Calling in infected staff should only happen if there are concrete examples of patient suffering as a result of staff shortages, he said. That would include surgeries and procedures being cancelled, diagnostic services falling behind, or not having enough staff on units to provide care.

P.E.I.’s Chief Public Health Office says if there’s a critical staff shortage that may jeopardize patient care it will consider allowing asymptomatic positive staff to go to work, but it has not yet resorted to that option.