FREDERICTON — New Brunswick's hospitals are struggling to provide appropriate and timely care amid rising COVID-19 infections and the high number of health staff who can't work because they have tested positive or have been exposed to the disease.
"Hundreds" of health-care workers are isolating at home, according to a statement Thursday from the Health Department. The government issued an official number on Tuesday — 571 isolating workers — up by 41 from the day prior.
Dr. Mark MacMillan, president of the New Brunswick Medical Society, says the province's hospitals were already facing staffing shortages before the pandemic. In an interview Wednesday, the doctor said COVID-19 is challenging the ability of workers to provide "appropriate and timely care."
"We are definitely very strained," he said. "I don't think we are broken yet, but it's definitely an unpredictable situation and we need to re-evaluate things on a daily basis, and that's what they're doing." MacMillan said emergency rooms and intensive care units are fully functioning but services such as diagnostic imaging and non-life-saving surgeries are postponed.
On Dec. 31, New Brunswick's two health networks — Horizon and Vitalité — announced that hospitals were moving to the red alert level, under which non-urgent medical procedures are postponed and visitor access is restricted. The Vitalité Health Network said Thursday half its 10 hospitals have an occupancy rate of more than 100 per cent.
Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, says no one wants to postpone procedures but there's a need to maintain a certain level of care. She said the staff shortage is "putting an already strained system on life support."
"The nurses have been showing up and doing the best they can under circumstances that have been not great even pre-pandemic," she said in an interview Wednesday. "But now, almost two years into a pandemic, they are totally exhausted and trying their darndest to do the best they can.
"A nurse may go in for a 12-hour shift expecting to leave at 7:30 at night and next thing you know, they are staying to midnight or until the next day because there is no relief coming in," Doucet said. "It's a vicious cycle and right now, the nurses are in the thick of it. With this new variant and the transmissibility of it, it just seems like it is getting worse in all our facilities right now."
Doucet said many nurses are saying they can't take it anymore, adding that some are going on sick leave, quitting the profession or leaving New Brunswick.
As of November 2021, there were about 1,000 registered nurse positions vacant within the regional health authorities and in the long-term care sector. There were another roughly 300 licensed practical nurse positions vacant within the hospitals.
On Thursday, officials said there were 63 people hospitalized in the province with the disease — a rise of four from a day earlier — and 19 patients in intensive care, a rise of three. A person in their 30s in the Fredericton region was the 169th in the province to die as a result of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
The province reported 672 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, but chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell has said the number of PCR-confirmed cases no longer reflects the severity of the situation in the province.
Dr. Roxanne MacKnight, a family physician in Miramichi, N.B., and former president of the New Brunswick College of Family Physicians, took to social media this week to call for government action to help the hospitals.
"New Brunswick needs to lockdown NOW," MacKnight wrote on Twitter. "Staff shortages high, elective surgery, lab work, X-rays all postponed."
Doucet said she didn't know if a lockdown is the answer, but she said if case numbers and numbers of health-care staff isolating remain high, then government will need to do more.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2022.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press