Two indicators have profoundly shaped the COVID-19 response in B.C. — the estimated potential burden on the health-care system and hospitalization data.
In fact, these two indicators were paramount in justifying the implementation of the most restrictive public health measures before the availability of vaccines.
But coming out of the third wave, we learned these measures were largely insufficient in preserving the capacity of our health-care workers and our health-care system.
Furthermore, we learned that the pressure, demands and moral distress generated by the management of COVID-19 in the health-care system exacerbated an already dire shortage of health-care workers.
In the first quarter of 2021, the health-care sector experienced the most significant increase (39 per cent) in job vacancies in Canada. In June, those vacancies represented about 20 per cent of the job vacancies in the country. That’s 98,700 vacant jobs, half of which are nursing positions.
Nurses have been particularly impacted by COVID-19 and the way it was managed. This has resulted in an unprecedented mass exodus of nurses, which continues today and will continue for the rest of 2021 — and beyond.
Throughout the summer, there have been numerous reports of closures of acute care beds and emergency departments due to the nursing shortage. Alarms have also been raised about the unsafe working conditions resulting from severe understaffing of nurses in acute care settings.
These reports only scratch the surface of what is happening in our health-care system. The full extent of the nursing shortage and its impact on the health-care system has remained largely hidden from the public despite rising COVID-19 cases.
Understandably, the COVID-19 response has shifted to vaccination over the past few months. Yet we remain in a global pandemic with a more infectious variant and a fourth wave that continues to put pressure on our health-care system.
We are fortunate to work with nurses, teach nurses and study nurses. They are all currently reporting alarmingly high numbers of job vacancies in their fields of practice and severe understaffing that contribute to unsafe care and working conditions.
They see the impact of the exodus firsthand, with experienced colleagues leaving in large numbers and new graduates (novice nurses) finding themselves staffing and in charge of entire units, with no mentorship and minimal orientation.
The labour shortage is not only affecting nurses. It is affecting other health-care workers as well. At this stage in the pandemic, the numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions do not capture the extent of the burden on the health-care system. It certainly does not reflect our capacity to handle a fourth wave and what will come next.
Assuming that nurses and other health-care workers will always be there in sufficient numbers to answer the call would be foolish and dangerous. It would also be bad public policy to think that new graduates will “fix” the labour shortage. They won’t.
Aside from getting vaccinated, which is a concrete step every eligible British Columbian must take to spare our health system and protect its workers, more reporting and transparency on job vacancies is vital at this stage in the pandemic.
Adopting evidence-based approaches to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the population and its impact on the health-care system, such as broad mask mandates and investments in good ventilation of indoor public spaces, are also essential.
Continuing on with the current restart plan will take a toll on nurses and other health-care workers that could take decades to heal. This could, in turn, severely impact the accessibility of all health-care services needed by British Columbians of all ages and across health conditions.
The time is now to appreciate the true severity of this fourth wave and the consequences of our collective actions.