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

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
57 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health region

Thirty people in the region are in hospital, 16 of whom are in intensive care

Fun in Penticton is being promoted through banners going up along Main and Westminster. (Suzanne White Western News)
Banners go up in downtown celebrating fun in Penticton

From beach or biking time to dining or shopping, the banners promote things to do

George Ryga, considered by many as Canada’s most important English playwright lived in Summerland from 1963 until his death in 1987. He is the inspiration for the annual Ryga Arts Festival. (Contributed)
Summerland archive established for George Ryga

Renowned author wrote novels, poetry, stage plays and screen plays from Summerland home

Municipal crews are clearing sand from streets in Summerland. The street sweeping is expected to be completed by early June. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
Summerland crews clearing sand from streets

Work expected to be completed by early June

A hummingbird gives its wings a rare rest while feeding in a North Okanagan garden. (Karen Siemens/North Okanagan Naturalists Club)
Hummingbirds back for another Okanagan season

North America’s littlest birds return, and they’re hungry

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

(Kingfisher Boats photo)
In the market for a boat in the North Okanagan? Be prepared to wait

Vernon’s Kingfisher Boats is out of 2021 models, with many 2022 models already pre-sold

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. CDC updates info, acknowledging small respiratory droplets can spread COVID-19

Large droplets, not aerosols had been fixture of public health messaging for many months

Grizzly bear. (File)
Malakwa man bitten by grizzly bear on dog walk

The man and dogs were not seriously injured

Most Read