Canadian hospitals strain as Omicron hits health workers

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After a year as an emergency department nurse at a busy Toronto hospital in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Aimee Earhart called it quits last week. She is moving to Florida for a short contract before getting work as a travel nurse for what she hopes will be double the salary.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its highly contagious Omicron variant have made a challenging staffing situation in Canada’s hospitals worse.

Interviews with a dozen health care workers, including eight current and former nurses, reveal a health system strained by a pandemic wave that hit at the worst possible time – sickness sidelining staff as more COVID-19 patients than ever need hospitalization, forcing health workers exhausted by two unrelenting years to take on more work.

Hospitals have been asking staff to forego holidays or take on overtime shifts.

Canadians take pride in their public health system. But by failing to adequately invest in it, critics say, governments left it vulnerable to the ravages of a years-long public health emergency. If health workers leave and are not replaced – thanks to training and certification backlogs, capped wages or the perception of a punishing profession – that could hurt health system capacity.

The problem is global: A report from the International Council of Nurses published Monday said sickness, burnout and staff departures are taking a toll on the world’s nursing workforce unseen so far during the pandemic.

Job vacancies in Canada’s health and social assistance sector increased by 78.8% between the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2021, according to Statistics Canada.

Ontario’s government, which has come under fire for capping the salaries of some public employees, including nurses, before the pandemic, said in a statement it added 6,700 health care workers and staff since the pandemic began and planned to add another 6,000 by March. It did not clarify whether this was a net increase.