Saskatchewan ICUs, testing capacity see worrying strain: unions

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The presidents of the SUN and SIEU-West unions say their workers are struggling with the crowded ERs, in addition to the near-capacity ICUs, and the province is behind on testing – Nov 28, 2020

The heads of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN) and of Service Employees International Union West (SIEU-West), which represents lab workers, both say their staff are facing tremendous strain as COVID-19 cases surge in Saskatchewan.

And both warn the burdens of the pandemic have consequences for the whole province.

On Thursday the provincial government announced that surging infections caused by the novel coronavirus have filled the province’s intensive care units [ICUs], which are close to 100 per cent capacity.
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Read more: SHA adds new staffing measures to combat rising COVID-19 hospitalizations, ICU nears capacity

And Information the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) presented to the province’s doctors on Thursday evening shows that active cases rose nearly 400 per cent in the 30 days leading up to Nov. 23.

That’s alongside an increase in hospitalizations of more than 400 per cent over the same time period.

Barbara Cape, the president of SIEU-West, said the projections may be based on incomplete numbers.

The union said a worker at one Saskatoon lab reported up to 2,000 swabs from symptomatic patients have not been processed by each day’s end this week.

“It’s out of control,” Cape said.

“We can’t be lagging behind like this. We’re a world-class health-care system. We need to act like it; we need to invest like it.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Saskatchewan health officials warn province nearing ICU capacity

Understaffing has been a problem for nearly a decade, she said, but it has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Demands are particularly high for lab staff at Saskatoon’s Royal University and St. Paul’s hospitals, Cape said.

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On Friday Tracy Zambory, president of SUN, said its not just the ICUs that are full.

“I heard as recently as yesterday the emergency rooms are full and they’re full with what they call ‘admitted with no bed.’ And the areas they can put [those] admitted with no bed are also becoming full.”

The lag in testing and crowded hospitals come as lab workers and nurses are already exhausted after nine months of the pandemic.

Zambory said the nurses are “tired, they’re scared, yesterday’s announcement makes them even more scared … disappointed and frustrated,” she told Global News on Friday.

In a statement, SHA spokesperson James Winkel said beds will be available for everyone who need them

Read more: New Saskatchewan COVID-19 restrictions good, but more needed: Saskatoon doctor

Winkel also stated that all patients will be cared for and admitted in a timely fashion.

“We work diligently to ensure that this flow of patients is in a timely fashion, however at times patient transfers between units may be delayed – particularly when our hospitals are at high occupancy levels,” Winkel said.

Cape said the current conditions facing lab workers adds to challenges created by chronic understaffing.

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“People are working double shifts on a regular basis,” she said.

“We need more staff, so we can gain control of what is happening with this pandemic,” Cape said. “We need more staff, so that the ones who are currently working don’t burn out.”

She said lab workers are having to decide which tests get done.

“Which comes first? The COVID tests or the cancer tests? That’s the position that our lab techs are in.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Saskatchewan health officials describes time constraints behind contact tracing

The union is calling on the health ministry and SHA to hire more lab scientists, assistants and techs.

In a statement, a Ministry of Health spokesperson told Global News it is committed to supporting the SHA “to recruit the necessary resources to be able to complete as many as 4,000 tests a day if needed.”

“This includes the recruitment and training of 76 [full time] new lab staff which is well underway. However we recognize that recruitment and training will necessarily take some time but efforts are well underway,” Colleen Book said, in an email.
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SEIU-West is calling for a temporary slowdown of some health-care services to further prioritize processing of COVID-19 tests.

“We need to… gain control of what’s coming in the front doors,” Cape said.

“It’s a really hard decision and I respect the hell out of folks who have to make it. But it has to be made because we are falling further and further behind.”

Zambory told Global News the solution to the problem of at-capacity hospitals and tired health-care workers takes place outside the medical system.

“What we’re talking about is a very targetted shutdown on areas that have proven to be superspreaders, like the bingo palaces, like the casinos, and like the night clubs,” she said, stating the shutdowns should just last two weeks.

She stressed she is aware of the financial hardship measures like that could cause but, “I think there’s many ways that we can keep the economy going and save lives at the same time. It’s not either/or.”

— With files from Jonathan Guignard