The Omicron-fuelled fifth wave of the pandemic has only begun in Saskatchewan, but already the province's emergency departments are feeling the impact.
Dr. Brian Geller, a Regina emergency physician, said he saw more people than ever seek care due to COVID-19 over the holidays.
Geller said fewer health-care workers and more patients have meant longer wait times and strain on those who do make it to work.
"There have been multiple times when extra physicians are required [in the emergency room] and we aren't able to find them, and the nursing complement is less than optimal," he said.
"When you put that all together, it's the perfect storm for people to be waiting, but also for bad outcomes for families."
The Saskatchewan Health Authority said it's seeing a "slight increase" in COVID-19 hospitalizations in urban and regional emergency departments.
"We are updating contingency plans for all areas including [emergency departments], acute care and ICU that take into account increased volume along with staff shortages," the health authority said in an emailed statement late Thursday afternoon.
To ease the strain on emergency departments, the SHA said it's working on enhancing community COVID-19 assessment centres to accommodate patients with the virus who have lower needs.
As of Thursday, "a limited number" of surge beds were being used to support COVID-19 patients in Regina and Saskatoon, with more available if needed to support those in intensive and acute care units, the health authority said.
In rural and northern regions, no surge beds are currently in use.
"Triggers are in place to activate surge beds as required, and the SHA continues to monitor capacity daily," the statement added.
Hospitalizations could be worse than Delta wave: doctor
On Thursday, the Saskatchewan government reported 913 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, but that number doesn't include anyone who tested positive on a rapid test and didn't confirm with a PCR test, or is unknowingly carrying the virus.
With hospitalizations being a lagging indicator, Geller said he'll be interested to see how many of those cases transform into hospital stays.
He said Saskatchewan will likely begin to see the hospital bed crunch and intensive care unit numbers experienced in the pandemic's fourth wave by the end of this month or early next.
"If things go the way they look like they're going, my estimation is that we'll be in a worse situation than we were with [the] Delta [coronavirus variant]," Geller said, noting hospitals out of province might not have the capacity to take on Saskatchewan patients.
In Saskatoon, intensive care physician Dr. Hassan Masri is also keeping a close eye on staff shortages as COVID-19 test positivity rates rise.
"You cannot produce personnel overnight," he said. "I am very worried about this transmission that we're seeing and I worry that we won't have enough staff to care for those patients who are being admitted to the hospital."
Sickness, burnout to blame for shortages
Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious diseases physician in Regina, said he also foresees the current health-care worker shortages to worsen in the weeks ahead.
He said there are several reasons, but sickness (from the community transmission of Omicron) and mental illness top the list.
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"There's going to be capacity gaps, and unless we address these things proactively and quickly, we're going to get hit hard," Wong predicted.
In recent days, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses has started receiving complaints about the impact the nursing shortage is having in hospitals.
Tracy Zambory, the union's president, said some rural emergency departments have had to temporarily turn away patients, putting further pressure on larger centres, such as Regina and Saskatoon.
According to the Saskatchewan Health Authority, more than 1,300 registered nurses and registered practical nurses were hired between March 2020 and December 2021, while roughly 990 left the workforce. The health authority listed retirements and terminations as two reasons for those departures.
In terms of vacancies, Statistics Canada's latest data shows there were 330 nursing jobs open in Saskatchewan in the third quarter of 2021 — up from the 220 empty positions in the first quarter.
Zambory said burnout remains the top factor in those vacancies, which are mostly in the emergency and operating rooms — units that require specialized training.
"This kind of stress and pressure is not something that's sustainable for as long as they've had to sustain it for, and they've continued to show up everyday since March of 2020," she explained.
Zambory noted the health authority has leaned heavily on international recruitment — which has helped the situation — but said her union is looking for more public health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.
"This personal responsibility formula isn't working. If it was working, we wouldn't be finding ourselves in this kind of disaster," she said.
Doctors advise preventative measures
On top of public health restrictions, Geller and Masri said there needs to be more focus on trying not to contract COVID-19.
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Geller advised people to return to what most did at the start of the pandemic: frequent hand washing, smaller social bubbles and fewer public outings.
"We should be improving our defences so we're preventing people from getting infected in the first place," he said. "It's going to be very helpful for everyone around you — all of your loved ones and the health-care system."