ICU nurse Sophie Gabiniewicz takes a rest in one of the staffing rooms during her shift at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver, Friday, December 4, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

ICU nurse Sophie Gabiniewicz takes a rest in one of the staffing rooms during her shift at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver, Friday, December 4, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Health workers report burnout amid second wave, ask public to obey health rules

News this week that a vaccine is on its way means there is a light at the end of the tunnel

Sophia Gabiniewicz is well accustomed to dealing with stress as a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

But she says it rose to a new level as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic began to swell and she recognized a familiar face in the ICU.

Gabiniewicz once worked with the woman, a “vibrant” former health worker in her 70s, who told her she had never been hospitalized in her life and that the COVID-19 infection took her by surprise.

“I worried for this person even more than I expected to,” she said. “I hoped she would be OK, but I never knew from day to day what to expect. When I went home, I would think about her.”

Thankfully, the woman’s story had a “happy ending,” but Gabiniewicz said it made her realize how stressed she has been.

Gabiniewicz is among many front-line workers feeling the effects of months of strain and is urging members of the public not to bend public health protocols.

News this week that a vaccine is on its way means there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but the risk isn’t gone yet.

“I wish that people would really be careful and take it seriously because it’s unpredictable,” she said.

B.C. Premier John Horgan said on Wednesday that when officials announced some vaccine would be in the province by next week, the news allowed for a brief celebration that the end is near.

“But before we get to that place, as in any race when you see the finish line you don’t stop running, you focus, you dig down deep to find that extra resolve to get to the finish line. That’s where we are today.”

Christine Sorensen, president of the B.C. Nurses Union, said she has heard from nurses across the province who are working extended hours, overtime and forgoing holidays.

The workload for some has been amplified by British Columbia’s surgical renewal program, which seeks to catch up on surgeries delayed at the beginning of the pandemic, she said.

“Nurses struggle with moral distress. They want to help their patients, they want to be able to deliver good-quality health care, but they are also exhausted, showing signs of burnout and need time to rest and recover themselves,” Sorensen said.

“Nurses haven’t really had that time to recover and we’re right back into a second wave.”

A survey of union members in June found that 41 per cent reported severe depression and 60 per cent were emotionally exhausted, while 57 per cent reported high levels of burnout, Sorensen said.

The pandemic has only highlighted a pre-existing shortage of nurses and a retention problem in the profession, especially in northern B.C., she said. Sorensen pointed to a report by B.C.’s auditor general in 2018 that found more than one-quarter of rural and remote nurse practitioner positions were vacant.

The union wants to see a more fulsome human resources plan at the provincial level to beef up staffing levels, Sorensen said from Kamloops, B.C.

The Health Ministry did not respond to a request for comment in time for deadline.

Kathleen Ross, president of Doctors of BC, said physicians have also adapted to the added workload. But she emphasized that while health workers are under a lot of pressure, it remains vitally important that those who think they need medical care seek it.

“My fear is that our patients’ responses will be, ‘Oh, I don’t want to bother my doctor because they’re burnt out,’ and let things slide,” said Ross, a family physician in Coquitlam, B.C.

“It’s really critically important that we encourage patients to continue to contact their family doctors, especially if they’ve got a chronic illness, because we do not want underlying conditions left untreated.”

Levi Elijah is taking a break from working as a mental health aide to support fellow workers as chairperson of the Hospital Employees’ Union local at Vancouver General Hospital.

Working at the hospital every day comes with some worry about contracting the virus, said Elijah, who uses the pronouns they and them.

After the initial fear when COVID-19 patients first began arriving at health centres, things slowed down during the summer, but the stresses rose again with the second wave, Elijah said.

“What I have noticed throughout is the ability to cope and our resiliency gets reduced, especially now with the second wave starting and the numbers increasing. We are noticing a higher increase in mental health issues and anxiety,” Elijah said.

Mike Old, a spokesman for the union, also said the surgical renewal program and second wave are highlighting staffing challenges.

The union, which represents about 20,000 long-term care and assisted living workers, supported the government’s move to limit workers to a single site as a disease control measure, but they’re now facing pressure with a second wave and flu season underway, he said.

The government is training more medical device processing technicians and the union is also working with government to fast-track programs to train more health-care assistants, but it takes time, he said.

“That’s why it’s just so important that people pay attention to public health orders,” Old said.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Just Posted

Nurses at the Cowichan District Hospital are thanking the community for following the health protocols during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured from left are nurses Jacqueline Kendall, Melissa Bustard and Heidi Ferris. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Pandemic year like no other, Cowichan nurses say

May 10-16 is National Nursing Week

Island Health’s new Wellness and Recovery Centre at 5878 York Rd. is now planned to be open in the fall. (File photo)
Wellness and Recovery Centre now to open in the fall

Three community dialogues scheduled for May

B.C. Centre for Disease Control data showing new cases by local health area for the week of May 2-8. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island COVID-19 local case counts the lowest they’ve been all year

On some areas of Island, more than 60 per cent of adults have received a vaccine dose

A nurse gets a swab ready to perform a test on a patient at a drive-in COVID-19 clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday, October 21, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Island’s daily COVID-19 case count drops below 10 for just the second time in 2021

Province reports 8 new COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island Wednesday

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking on a remote forest road in Naramata on May 10. (Submitted)
Kamloops brothers identified as pair found dead near Penticton

The bodies of Carlo and Erick Fryer were discovered by a local couple walking

Municipal governments around B.C. have emergency authority to conduct meetings online, use mail voting and spend reserve funds on operation expenses. (Penticton Western News)
Online council meetings, mail-in voting option to be extended in B.C.

Proposed law makes municipal COVID-19 exceptions permanent

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A nurse prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
British Columbians aged 20+ can book for vaccine Saturday, those 18+ on Sunday

‘We are also actively working to to incorporate the ages 12 to 17 into our immunization program’

The AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine. (AP/Eranga Jayawardena)
2nd person in B.C. diagnosed with rare blood clotting after AstraZeneca vaccine

The man, in his 40s, is currently receiving care at a hospital in the Fraser Health region

Canada’s demo Hornet soars over the Strait of Georgia near Comox. The F-18 demo team is returning to the Valley for their annual spring training. Photo by Sgt. Robert Bottrill/DND
F-18 flight demo team returning to Vancouver Island for spring training

The team will be in the Comox Valley area from May 16 to 24

Saanich police and a coroner investigated a fatal crash in the 5200-block of West Saanich Road on Feb. 4, 2021. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
Police determine speed, impairment not factors in fatal Greater Victoria crash

Driver who died veered across centre line into oncoming traffic for unknown reason, police say

Ladysmith RCMP safely escorted the black bear to the woods near Ladysmith Cemetary. (Town of Ladysmith/Facebook photo)
Bow-legged bear returns to Ladysmith, has an appointment with the vet

Brown Drive Park closed as conservation officers search for her after she returned from relocation

Most Read