By Pauline Kerr
Just when we thought the pandemic, or at least, the worst of it was defeated, we are hearing it has some fight left.
In the United States, there has been a surge of cases in certain parts of the country that is being called the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Almost all new cases are the highly transmissible Delta variant, and, as it has in other parts of the world, it is finding and spreading among unvaccinated people with devastating consequences.
COVID-19 hospital admissions and deaths are rising. They tend to be happening in states where the vaccination rate is relatively low, in a demographic where vaccine hesitancy is high – young adults.
Some parts of the United States have responded by reimposing mask requirements. Other countries have had to bring back restrictions on public gatherings.
The same thing is happening here, although on a smaller scale. Almost all new cases are the Delta variant, and young people are dying from it – not somewhere else in the world, but in our own community.
There are renewed fears that hospital intensive care units will be overwhelmed, pushed beyond capacity, at a time when Canada is facing another health-care crisis – the shortage of nurses.
In parts of Quebec, mainly large urban centres like Montreal, the situation has been described as critical. It is not unique to Quebec; other provinces are in a similar position.
Most of us knew there was a shortage of nurses long before the pandemic hit. For the past couple of decades, hospitals across the country have coped with rising health-care costs by closing beds.
In truth, the furniture is still there; it is unlikely there is a hospital in the country with too few beds. The missing element is the people to look after patients occupying the beds. Closing beds has long been a euphemism for laying off nurses.
Many things have been driving up costs in health care. We have more, and more expensive medications available than ever before, along with sophisticated and high-priced diagnostic tools and treatment options. Insurance costs have skyrocketed. Buildings themselves cost more. Medical science can do more than at any other time in history, and people have increased expectations of what should be done.
What we have is not health care as kindly old Dr. Marcus Welby knew it, but something that would be more familiar to Star Trek’s Dr. Leonard McCoy.
The cures and treatments space age health care can accomplish sometimes seem limitless, but their costs are not. Governments under pressure to balance budgets have attempted to put a lid on rising health-care costs. The result has been fewer and fewer nurses in our health-care system, right across the country.
Enter the pandemic.
All of a sudden, those nurses for whom there were no full-time positions, became the hottest commodity in health care.
Governments announced the hiring of hundreds of new nurses to care for long-term care and hospital patients, as if that would solve the problem.
Where were the nurses who would take those jobs? The ones who had lost their jobs in pre-COVID layoffs had moved into other careers. The education system had down-shifted to meet decreased demand.
After over a year of working under high-stress conditions, of too many overtime shifts, of missed breaks, being run off their feet and working short-staffed, some nurses are opting for early retirement or accepting positions in private health care – less stress, higher pay. There is no one to replace them.
Meanwhile, the Delta variant is attacking patients earlier waves of COVID missed.
The message is clear. Reducing health-care staffing to dangerously low levels to save money is a huge gamble. To win, everything must click, and that rarely happens.
Investing money in training nurses and ensuring there are full-time positions for them may prove to be the best way to make our health-care system sufficiently robust and resilient to meet the next health-care challenge that comes our way.
Dr. McCoy would surely approve. Actually, so would Dr. Welby. Three cheers for nurses!