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COVID and wildfires creating health care crisis in Kamloops, Okanagan

August 24, 2021 - 9:30 AM

Chronic staffing shortages in Kamloops and Kelowna hospitals have been compounded by the stress of the COVID pandemic and wildfires, leaving some acute care units short staffed and emergency rooms backed up.

“We’re in a significant crisis,” Scott Duvall, the B.C. Nurses’ Union’s Thompson-North Okanagan council member said. “We are hemorrhaging.”

His territory includes Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops which took in patients from smaller towns like Merritt, Ashcroft and 100 Mile House when they were threatened by wildfires. That means the hospital was operating at 125 per cent of capacity at times, he said.

“If you have to come to the emergency department, be aware of the fact there will be wait times,” Duvall said, noting that surgeries were cancelled one day in order to take the pressure off the emergency room.

At Kelowna General Hospital, chronic shortages of nurses have gone on for years on a somewhat cyclical basis, the union’s regional council member for Okanagan Similkameen, Candi DeSousa said.

sAt times in the past, a new manager would come in, hire more staff and things would be OK for awhile. Such hiring hasn’t happened for a long time, she said.

Just recently, DeSousa was contacted by a nurse who was one of six normally working in a surgical unit. One member was off sick and another was called away to fill in on different unit that was even more short staffed.

That left four nurses to deal with 37 patients for the shift.

“They ended up holding a lot of high acuity patients who would likely have been admitted to ICU but, of course, right now ICU at KGH is a little bit full with COVID,” DeSousa said.

That takes a toll on nurses who are in full personal protective equipment so may not have time to hydrate properly during their 12-hours shifts.

“You’re wearing PPE so, you’re only getting fluids and sustenance when you can find a place to take that off in a safe way,” she said. “Meals, the same thing. They’re on the fly. You’re scarfing down your food in 10 minutes instead of having 30 minutes to catch your breath and put your feet up.”

Then there’s the emotional toll.

“You always feel you left something undone or there was more that you could have done,” DeSousa said. “There’s fatigue like crazy. They can be exhausted to the point where they’re not sleeping, just stressed, lashing out at family and loved ones or sometimes, conversely, just self-isolating.’

Duvall cited a study done by the B.C. Nurses’ Union and the UBC school of nursing that found 41 per cent of nurses suffer severe depression and 66 per cent suffer emotional exhaustion.

READ MORE: Unvaccinated COVID patients in Kelowna taking toll on nurses, planned surgeries: Nurse

A 2020 Canadian Federation of Nursing Unions study found that 59.7 per cent of nurses planned to leave their current job in the next year and 27 per cent planned to leave nursing altogether, he said.

There are effective counselling programs for nurses suffering severe stress but the wait list can be three months just to get an appointment, DeSousa said.

“Even offering dedicated counsellors would go a long way to making it just a little bit easier for staff for what they see, for what they have to manage when they go to work,” she said.

READ MORE: Kamloops nurse frustrated and concerned for safety after car targeted

There are a number of factors contributing to the shortage of nurses. Part of it is not having enough people being trained in nursing schools but, even if that changed overnight, it would take two to four years to get those new recruits into the workforce.

Then, they may not want to work in the bigger hospitals, like Royal Inland or Kelowna General.

“I did speak with one of our new grads and she mentioned that a large portion of graduates out of Thompson Rivers University have decided not to obtain employment in Kamloops,” Duvall said. “They’ve gone to other areas because, during their (training) experience, they’re not interested in working under those types of conditions.”

He’s also hearing of a lot of nurses who are reducing to part-time or casual status because they have more control over their schedules and work-life balance. That just puts more work onto the full-time staff.

While there have been rumours of huge amounts of sick leave being taken by nurses, the reps could not confirm that because they don't have access to data from Interior Health.

For its part, Interior Health has not responded to repeated requests by for statistics on the amount of sick leave being taken by nurses.

There are a number of things the province could do to ease the immediate situation, the two union reps say.

One would be to ease restrictions on foreign trained nurses. Another is to boost employment in other areas of the system.

“It’s all the little things that seem to fall down at the same time that make it so much harder for everyone,” DeSousa said. “If you are one of those nurses with 37 cases and one of your patients develops chest pains and you call for an ECG and the cardiac tech says, wait a minute, I’m the only one in the hospital and I’ve got five other people to see before I get there because they’ve had chest pain longer than your patient.

“Or you’re waiting in Emergency to discharge a patient and you need a lab test done and you call lab tech and they say, wait a minute, I’m the only one here in the entire hospital, so it’s that kind of stuff as well.

“There needs to be more support services to look after non-nursing duties –  unit clerks, porters, occupational therapists, food services, laundry services – to reduce any duties nurse are doing,” Duvall said.

But, overall, government needs a develop a human resources plan on how to deal with these chronic shortages, he said.

In order for that to happen, both reps suggest people talk to nurses and lobby their MLAs to make changes.

The tough part about talking to nurses, however, is that they’re not covered by whistleblower legislation, DeSousa said.

“Interior Health is very, very good at finding any outreach that a nurse does to media or on social media and there is generally discipline associated with it,” she said. has found that nurses won't even talk on the record about the chronic shortage of parking at these two hospitals, let alone staffing shortage or the quality of care.

READ MORE: New nurses face up to nine-year wait to get parking spots at Interior hospitals

At the same time, both reps say people should not shy away from going into the Emergency wards when necessary.

“The message is not about creating fear for people coming to seek out medical assistance,” Duvall said.

“It’s not going to be optimal,” DeSousa said. “You’re going to get your basic life-saving stuff and everything is going to be prioritized by urgency. It is not ideal."

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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