Leave cancelled, staff under pressure as Canterbury DHB sees high Covid-19 cases

Canterbury District Health Board is still grappling with high numbers of Omicron cases weeks after it thought it would be over the worst.

Corridor hospital

Photo: Supplied

Initial modelling had expected numbers to be in single digits by now – instead there are more than 1300 cases in the community and 71 Covid-19 patients in the region’s hospitals – both figures second only to Auckland.

About 200 staff have been off sick with the virus over the last three weeks, but it is still planning to start bringing back more elective surgery from Tuesday.

Christchurch Hospital has had to move nurses out of their speciality areas and refuse them annual leave to keep the hospital staffed during Omicron.

Most elective surgery has been cancelled and one nurse, who RNZ has agreed not to name, said for those who usually did that work, each day was a mystery.

“Basically, it means you get to work and you actually don’t know where you’re going to be going that day. You could be going anywhere, to somewhere out of your scope which stresses people out,” she explained.

“People are used to the environment they’ve worked in and have chosen those environments to work in.”

In extreme cases, nurses who had spent decades working in paediatrics suddenly found themselves put on adult wards, the nurse said.

She thought the DHB’s decision to cancel leave creates another problem.

“I think when we get through this winter, there’s going to be a lot of staff who are going to need that leave. We’ve been kept sort of on standby, not knowing what stuffing is like each day.”

It was a different story at the city’s 24-hour medical centre, where clinical director Jasmine MacKay said pressure had eased since the Omicron peak in early April.

Now only a few staff are off each day with the virus, but there are still plenty of Covid-19 patients.

“What our data shows is that we have about 25 to 30 percent of our patients are what we call red stream. They don’t always have Covid but they either have it, are a household contact or have Covid-like symptoms,” MacKay said.

The number of patients in hospital is not going down either, and the DHB admitted the trend is not what it originally anticipated.

The nurse RNZ spoke to said staff are being told the pressure’s unlikely to ease for another few months.

“We don’t see a light in the early future. We just think we just have to get through this winter and hope that it’s not like last winter when NICU, the neonatal unit, was overwhelmed and the paediatric wards were overwhelmed with the RSV virus.”

Several staff who had had Covid-19 were struggling when they returned, she added.

“Some of them have come back to work weeks later and are still having issues with symptoms of fatigue and they find it hard to get their breath. It’s compounded by the fact that we have to wear a mask for the eight hours that we’re [at the hospital].”

The nurse believed the immense pressure on health professionals could put them at higher risk of contracting Long Covid.

“Nurses recovering from Covid then walk back into a situation where we’re doing shift work, which lowers your immunity anyway.

“I mean, you put a nurse onto nights and they’ve probably the following week got a cold. It’s just the way it rolls and we all know it’s like that.”

In a statement, the District Health Board said the scaling back of its dedicated Covid-19 team came as it began preparing for winter flu cases and a jump in demand for acute services.

Elective surgery, or planned care, will also gradually increase from next week, depending on staff numbers.

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