This story is part of Situation Critical, a series from CBC British Columbia reporting on the barriers people in this province face in accessing timely and appropriate health care.
Data shows that sick leaves in B.C.’s health-care sector are up by a marked amount compared to pre-pandemic levels.
According to numbers requested by CBC News, an average of 9.7 per cent of health-care workers in the public system were off sick for at least a day during the last three weeks of July and the first two weeks of August.
That compares to six per cent of staff having sick hours weekly before the pandemic, a number released by Health Minister Adrian Dix last month.
The data has led to advocates calling for better support for staff, and steps to reduce COVID transmission to reduce the burden on hospital workers.
“In terms of there being an increase of health-care workers currently on sick leave, I’m actually not surprised by that,” said Adriane Gear, vice-president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union.
“We’ve also seen a spike in COVID infections. Nurses and other health-care workers … unfortunately, they, too, are getting sick.”
Andrew Longhurst, a health policy researcher at Simon Fraser University, said it is especially concerning that the disease burden has been high during the summer months, when respiratory illnesses are usually not prominent.
“Going now into the fall, when we’re likely to see even greater demand on health-care services, we’re likely to be continuing to experience significant sickness related absences,” he said. “It’s not sustainable. It’s clearly not working right now.”
B.C.’s public health-care system has been significantly impacted by closures over the past few months.
Longhurst says the situation will likely continue unless the province makes concerted efforts to reduce disease transmission through universal measures like masking and widespread testing.
Nurses could be getting sick at work
A spokesperson for the Health Ministry said they are not quantifying how many workers are off sick with COVID during any given week.
“While health-care workers are prioritized for COVID-19 testing, many are using rapid antigen tests, which are not reported in the way that PCR tests are,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Not everyone who has symptoms is getting tested and not all health-care workers who do get a reportable PCR test identify as a health-care worker.
“For these reasons, the number of health-care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 is not available.”
But Gear says it’s “entirely possible” that nurses are getting sick with COVID within hospitals.
“Nurses continue to acquire COVID, just like other members of the public in the community, but also in the hospital setting,” she said.
B.C. nurses working more overtime
Gear says the sickness burden, along with a general staffing shortage, is leading to many shifts going unfilled at hospitals — leading to an “unsustainable” amount of overtime hours being worked by nurses.
Data shows that nearly one-third of B.C.’s nurses have been pulling overtime hours this year, more than the national average. Longhurst says research shows continued overtime leads to poorer care and an increase in workplace injuries.
“It’s actually very concerning because [overtime] seems to be a primary staffing strategy and it’s absolutely not sustainable,” Gear said. “Sometimes you’re taking care of like twice as many patients as you would normally.”
When asked what the province was doing to help health-care workers, the ministry spokesperson pointed to hiring initiatives and mental health programs like Care for Caregivers.
“We have also worked with key partners — such as the B.C. College of Nurses and Midwives, B.C. Nurses’ Union and health authority leadership — to increase nurses’ awareness of available supports,” the spokesperson said.
But Gear says the province’s proposed hiring initiatives are a “drop in the bucket” and there is little being done to retain workers currently in the system.
As the nurses’ union’s collective agreement with the province has expired, they are set to go to the table with the province at the beginning of October.
Gear wouldn’t say if any job action is on the horizon for B.C.’s health-care staff, but she said nurses are currently feeling disrespected.
“We know that we’re respected and appreciated by the public, but we need to see the government show us some respect,” she said.