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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Sarah Simpson
Sarah Simpson column: Snowballs fights and dead spiders

Even if it doesn’t end up how we hope, it’s the trying that matters most.

Cowichan Tribes members line up at a drive-up clinic on Wednesday, Jan. 13 to receive the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in the region. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
BCAFN condems racism against Cowichan Tribes after COVID-19 outbreak

“Any one of us could do everything right and still catch the virus”: Regional Chief Terry Teegee.

Dr. Shannon Waters, the medical health officer for the Cowichan Valley Region, is reminding people to stay the course with COVID-19 measures. (File photo)
‘Stay the course’ with COVID measures, Island Health reminds

Limit social activity, wash hands, wear a mask, and isolate if you feel sick

Cowichan Bay tennis player Grace Haugen takes part in an exhibition at the South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club in 2019, which also included Canadian legends Frank Dancevic and Daniel Nestor. Haugen has committed to further her career at the University of Montana starting next fall. (Citizen file)
Cowichan Bay tennis player prepares for next step in her journey

Grace Haugen commits to University of Montana

Keith the curious kitten is seen on Nov. 4, 2020 at the Chilliwack SPCA. Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 is Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Jan. 17 to 23

Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, Pie Day and International Sweatpants Day are all coming up this week

A unique-looking deer has been visiting a Nanoose Bay property with its mother. (Frieda Van der Ree photo)
A deer with 3 ears? Unique animal routinely visits B.C. property

Experts say interesting look may be result of an injury rather than an odd birth defect

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

Terry David Mulligan. (Submitted photo)
Podcast: Interview with longtime actor/broadcaster and B.C. resident Terry David Mulligan

Podcast: Talk includes TDM’s RCMP career, radio, TV, wine, Janis Joplin and much more

A still from surveillance footage showing a confrontation in the entranceway at Dolly’s Gym on Nicol Street on Friday morning. (Image submitted)
Troublemaker in Nanaimo fails at fraud attempt, slams door on business owner’s foot

VIDEO: Suspect causes pain and damage in incident downtown Friday morning

Seasonal influenza vaccine is administered starting each fall in B.C. and around the world. (Langley Advance Times)
After 30,000 tests, influenza virually nowhere to be found in B.C.

COVID-19 precautions have eliminated seasonal infection

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says Canada’s COVID vaccine plan on track despite Pfizer cutting back deliveries

Canadian officials say country will still likely receive four million doses by the end of March

Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon shared a handwritten note his son received on Jan. 13, 2021. (Ravi Kahlon/Twitter)
Proud dad moment: B.C. minister’s son, 10, receives handwritten note for act of kindness

North Delta MLA took to Twitter to share a letter his son received from a new kid at school

Lilly and Poppy, two cats owned by Kalmar Cat Hotel ownder Donna Goodenough, both have cerebellAr hypoplasia, a genetic neurological condition that affects their ability to control their muscles and bones. Photo by Alistair Taylor – Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Wobbly Cats a riot of flailing legs and paws but bundles of love and joy to their owner

Woman urges others to not fear adopting cats with disabilities

Most Read