Hospitals dealing with burnout, staff shortages and high occupancy rates amid new COVID-19 wave
Ontario’s political leaders say pandemic restrictions likely won’t be put back in place, even though the province is now in a sixth wave of COVID-19.
In the past week, both the premier and the health minister have made it clear they’re relying heavily on Ontario’s hospital system to handle an influx of infections.
"We have a stronger, more stable health care system. More capacity in the hospitals," Premier Doug Ford told a news conference on March 25.
"This was not unexpected that we would see the numbers continue to go up," said Health Minister Christine Elliott at an April 1 news conference. "But we do have the capability in our hospitals to manage any increases."
Those comments were in response to questions about re-instating mask mandates, after seeing a rise in positive cases and hospitalizations.
Ontario’s Science Advisory Table said this sixth wave has been driven by more relaxed restrictions.
For the past two years, the province’s hospital workers have been stretched to the limit.
"A lot of health care workers definitely need a break," said Stephanie Pearsall, the vice-president of Clinical Programs and Chief Nursing Executive at Cambridge Memorial Hospital. "They have been working non-stop for two years, no doubt about it."
"Our team has been extremely resilient over the past two years in responding to the challenges and responding to high care needs of the community and it’s wearing on them for sure," added Ron Gagnon, the president and CEO of Grand River Hospital in Kitchener.
In November 2021, 53% of Ontario’s doctors reported feeling burnout. That was up from 30% in 2017.
"We’re really looking at retention, you know, how we keep folks here that have been here throughout the two years?" said Pearsall.
Staffing shortages are once again a challenge at two local hospitals.
On Tuesday, Cambridge Memorial Hospital said they had 47 staff off of work due to COVID-19 protocols. Grand River Hospital, meanwhile, said more than 145 staff were off.
"It’s one thing to have physical capacity," said Gagnon. "The most important is the highly-skilled health care workers to be able to staff those beds and provide that care."
Gagnon was referring to the more than 160 beds added by the province during the pandemic to increase capacity.
"We were very challenged before that, from a capacity standpoint. And even today we’re running at very high occupancy rates – almost 100%."
Pearsall said CMH is at 101% occupancy rate for medicine, and 93% for the ICU, where there is one free bed.
On Tuesday, they were also holding 11 emergency room patients who were waiting for beds.
Both Gagnon and Pearsall said the hospitals are doing everything they can to support their staff and encourage them to take vacations.
At the same time, Pearsall said they have 212 positions that need to be filled as capacity expanded during the pandemic.
When it comes to taking preventative measures to keep patients from winding up in hospital in the first place, Gagnon said it’s a delicate balance to be able to care for the community, but also for people to live with a "sense of normalcy."
"If every one of us, as an individual, can take those steps of wearing a mask, socially distancing, if eligible get vaccinated – doing everything we can to stay healthy and help our loved ones stay health – we can help each other and we can help the health care system."
On Friday, the medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph said the latest wave is more due a cycle of the pandemic rather than the relaxing of restrictions.
Dr. Nicola Mercer told CTV News she doesn’t want to have to put mandates back in place, because she says many in the community are following the rules already.
"When you see case numbers rise, just be what I call 'mask-friendly,'" she said. "Do the right thing. Just put a mask on, especially if you’re a vulnerable person or a member of your family is."