Ontario hospitals brace for Omicron's impact as hundreds of staff members call in sick

·4 min read
Health-care workers are calling in sick by the hundreds, according to the University Health Network. Staff shortages are expected to affect Ontario's whole health-care system as Omicron cases continue to surge.  (Carlos Osorio / Reuters - image credit)
Health-care workers are calling in sick by the hundreds, according to the University Health Network. Staff shortages are expected to affect Ontario's whole health-care system as Omicron cases continue to surge. (Carlos Osorio / Reuters - image credit)

Hospitals and clinics across Ontario are bracing for the impacts of the Omicron variant, according to the medical director of Occupational Health Services at the University Health Network (UHN).

Dr. John Granton said the province's health-care system is already showing signs of strain, with about 100 UHN staff members calling in sick every day.

As Omicron cases continue to surge, the number of hospitalizations are expected to rise. This influx has likely been amplified by holiday gatherings over the past few weeks, Granton said.

"We're seeing the consequence of that now, and we'll continue to see that probably for the next 10 days," he said. "I think we're really going to have to pull out all the stops to try to keep the machine running."

As hundreds of staff members are calling in sick each day, hospitals and clinics across the province are redeploying employees to ensure that emergency services, including intensive care units, remain operational. As a result, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore reports that thousands of procedures — those unrelated to COVID — will be delayed per week.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

"Generally what we would look at through a typical week would be somewhere between eight to ten thousand surgeries or other procedures that will be impacted by this," Moore said at a Monday morning news conference.

Over the next few weeks, all sectors are likely to see about 20 to 30 per cent of workers calling in sick, Moore said.

While that includes health care, the medical officer also said there are measures in place to get health-care workers back to work as quickly as possible.

Those measures include allowing employees to isolate for a shorter period of time than they would have to with previous variants of the virus, Granton said.

"We don't keep them off for 10 days or two weeks anymore. We can probably just keep them off for five days," he said. "I think we're feeling a little more reassured … If this was Delta with the same magnitude of effect on making people sick, we'd be very frightened."

Government slow to respond, some advocates say

But there is still cause for concern, Dr. Lisa Salamon of Ontario's Scarborough Health Network told CBC News.

"We're going to have a really rough four to six weeks," she said. "It's a huge trickle effect when we have staffing shortages all the way down from the ICU to the hospital wards to the emergency departments."

Staffing shortages are nothing new during the pandemic, and Salamon said it's frustrating to see the government react slowly.

"Two years into this, it's really very frustrating," she said. "We saw this happening three weeks ago, four weeks ago, probably. And it's very frustrating that now, when things are really just out of control, that all of a sudden they're making the decision [to go back to Step Two of the province's reopening plan]."

The Ontario government announced Monday that the province would move back to Step Two of it's Roadmap to Reopening plan.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The new measures include further limits on social gatherings, closing indoor dining at restaurants, closing gyms and moving all students to online learning for at least two weeks.

"We face a tsunami of new cases in the days and weeks ahead," Premier Doug Ford said at the news conference. "We have to make sure we protect our health-care workers to make sure that they'll be able to go into the hospitals and support people coming in."

Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, a Canadian health-care union, told CBC News she doesn't feel the province has followed the advice of those working on the front lines.

"Today is a sad day for the province of Ontario," she said. "These are all reactionary positions that the government is taking. They need to be proactive."

Health-care unions have been attempting to work closely with the government for over two years, Stewart said, and she wants to see a proactive plan moving forward, beyond the current surge in COVID cases.

"This is going to be longer than two weeks to get us out of this," she said. "We need to come together to find a solution … to ensure that we are not caught like this again."

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