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Nova Scotia health-care workers steel themselves for influx of COVID-19 patients

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By the numbers, this is the worst the pandemic has ever been in Nova Scotia and there's little question health-care workers are feeling the strain. Reporter Elizabeth McSheffrey dives into how the health-care system is preparing for an influx of new COVID-19 patients, and some of the long-term consequences of stress and burnout – Apr 30, 2021

Nova Scotia’s health-care system is bracing for impact as the province’s chief medical officer issues a stark warning: the third wave will get much worse before it gets better.

“We are in a serious outbreak situation,” said Dr. Robert Strang on Friday. “We are seeing the stresses on many parts of our health-care system, such as public health, the lab and we’re beginning to see impacts on our hospitals.”

The province’s primary health-care provider, Nova Scotia Health (NSH), is already feeling the impacts. It confirmed this week, four staff have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 168 are either symptomatic, self-isolating, or waiting for the results of a test.

In an email on April 27, spokesperson Brendan Elliott said 80 per cent of the province’s intensive care unit space is already occupied, but that’s “currently sufficient to respond to an initial increase in COVID-19 activity.”

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READ MORE: COVID-19 — N.S. reports another drop in cases, AstraZeneca vaccine open to more people

Despite recent daily case increases ranging between 60 and 96, public health officials remain confident the system is prepared to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients. Resources are already being shifted to accommodate projected demand.

The IWK Health Centre, for example, is reducing elective surgeries by 25 per cent beginning Monday in order to free up in-patient bed space. It’s also making preparations to care for COVID-positive children, and developing protocols for pregnant women who contract the virus.

“I do think we’re ready, we’re creating capacity, we’re monitoring the situation very closely, so I’m certainly very confident we have the plans in place to deal with a surge,” said Dr. Doug Sinclair, IWK’s vice-president of medicine, quality and safety.

The hospital’s lab staff are already supporting NSH with testing, he added, and its “outbreak team”— which responded to cases at Northwood Halifax in the first wave — is ready for deployment if needed.

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All of the preparation, mobilization and shifts, however, are taking their toll on health-care workers, according to Nova Scotia Nurses’ Union president Janet Hazelton.

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As nurses pivot to meet pandemic requirements, other health services suffer, creating a backlog that strains an already exhausted group of workers.

“Nurses are being pulled to vaccines and they’re being pulled to do testing, so there’s been a reduction on elective surgeries and clinics,” she said. “Generally, nurses have been working harder … trying to balance everything, I would say that they’re tired.”

Dr. Sinclair said his staff are tired too, especially as they grapple with the additional challenge of school shutdowns. Health-care workers will need a break when this is all over, he explained, meaning that the backlog of patient needs won’t be resolved just because the pandemic is over.

READ MORE: COVID-19 — More than 4,000 people identified as high-risk contacts in Nova Scotia

Dr. Dayna Lee-Baggley, a registered psychologist in Halifax who researches pandemic burnout in front-line workers, predicted Nova Scotia will be paying the tab for health-care worker stress long after the pandemic is over.

“I anticipate we’ll see a lot of retirements and turnover, changing professions for many people,” she told Global News. “They’re starting to question whether they want to even continue in the profession, because it’s been so difficult to deal with.”

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Even when health-care workers do get a break, it can be tough to use that time effectively to recharge, said Dr. Lori Francis, a psychology professor and acting dean of science at Saint Mary’s University.

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Psychological detachment for example — not thinking about work — is considered “high quality recovery time,” she explained, but it’s easier said than done. That’s why it’s important for employer supports, and public recognition for the contributions of health-care workers, to continue post-COVID-19, she added.

READ MORE: With COVID-19 present in daycares, early childhood educators call for greater protection

In order to ease the burden on health-care workers now, Hazelton asked the public to adhere to public health protocols — the quickest way to ensure nurses get a break.

Sinclair also emphasized the importance of patients accessing their health-care system for their needs, as hospitals are safe, and it will help reduce the backlog on the other side of the pandemic.

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