BARRHEAD- Nurses and other healthcare staff working at the Barrhead Healthcare Centre are beyond exhausted.
That is what United Nurses of Alberta (UNA) Local 136 president Marilyn Wegewitz told the Barrhead Leader last week. In addition to being the local UNA president, she has been a registered nurse for 27 years, the majority of it in Barrhead at the hospital.
"We are not just tired — it is exhaustion, that is the only way to put it," she said.
Wegewitz said nurses and other healthcare staff are also frustrated by social media, reports from certain news outlets and people from the public who continually downplay that COVID-19 is a problem or believe it is all a hoax.
"I keep hearing that nurses are frontline workers," she said. "When you hear the word frontline, you think war, and that's what it feels like. Just when you think it is starting to get better, you get slammed with something else."
In some regions, there have been reports that there have been periods during the pandemic when visits to emergency rooms (ER) have decreased due to anxiety about catching COVID-19 or because they don't want to overburden the system.
However, Wegewitz said the local ER, for the most part, has remained busy.
"Because there are so many different signs and symptoms that could potentially be COVID, we have to isolate people and put on all the personal protective equipment, every time you interact with someone. You put everything on, take a history, then take everything off, and the process keeps getting repeated," she said. "It is time-consuming, and it is an added pressure on top of everything else that we have to do."
Wegewitz said while there might be the temptation to say "it is just a stomach bug" and forego the preventative measures in place to stop the spread of the virus, they can't afford to take that chance.
Wegewitz said there is a perception from some people in the community that COVID-19 is a big city problem and that they are safe in Barrhead.
"But that's not true. COVID is in the community. People have become sick, some quite seriously," she said. "The fact that there are people who are not taking it seriously enough is concerning because they are just adding to the problem."
Wegewitz added that she also gets upset when she hears people downplay the number of people in the ICUs.
"People look at the numbers and say there is a lot of capacity. There isn't. The only reason why ICUs are only at 70 to 80 per cent filled is because of all the work to increase capacity," she said.
Pre-COVID, Alberta Health Services (AHS) states that the province had about 175 ICU beds. As of Oct. 14, there were 282 people in ICUs across the province, with the vast majority as the result of COVID.
Without the added surge capacity beds, AHS estimates capacity would be at 163 per cent.
Wegewitz said adding to nurses’ workload is a lack of staff.
She added that this summer, for the first time in her career working in rural communities, a hospital she was at was temporarily forced to close beds due to staffing issues.
For about a month, starting in late July 10 in-patient beds at the Barrhead Healthcare Centre were closed.
Wegewitz said despite how exhausted and overwhelmed the Barrhead nursing staff is, she realizes they are better off than those who work at urban hospitals, who are "really getting slammed".
"But it has a trickle-down effect. In a small community, we have to send people out to the bigger centres, because we don't have the resources to look after them," she said, adding the reverse is also true. "You have people coming back from Edmonton that are being sent back to us because they need the bed, and we, in turn, send them home earlier, placing more of a strain on the home care system."
She also noted that the issue isn’t just isolated to nursing.
“The number of times housekeeping is called to the emergency department in an eight hour shift is incredible. This is because there are specific cleaning protocols needed when a person was in an area with suspected COVID-19,” Wegewitz said.
Wegewitz said there has been a health care staffing issue for years, especially in nursing, but COVID exasperated the problem.
"Everyone is so physically and emotionally exhausted, especially because we cannot give the care to our patients that we want to," she said, adding the problem is likely going to get worse.
She noted that many nurses are contemplating retiring early or switching professions.
And what makes it tougher is that it does not seem that people appreciate their efforts.
"(It’s frustrating) having people get mad because they can't visit relatives, or that they have to wear a mask or that they have to follow some other rule," Wegewitz said, noting that although they don't make the rules, they are there for a reason. "We are following them because we are trying to protect our patients, the public and ourselves."
Nor is Wegewitz the only nurse working at the Barrhead Healthcare Centre who is tired and frustrated.
One of Wegewitz's colleagues, who didn't wish to be identified, echoed her frustration.
"I am tired — tired from the mental stress of people coming to our ER and wanting care but are offended and then rude that we would ask about COVID symptoms and vaccine status," she said. "I am also tired from the physical toll of isolating patients who don’t think they should be isolated or donning and doffing all the apparel needed without any appreciation."
She said she was also saddened that people have polarized what should be a straightforward health decision.
"I am also embarrassed to be from a province where people cry out loudly that their rights are being taken away. When in reality, it is the rights of everyone else which are being trampled. And most of all, I am scared for our hospital and our community when we no longer have the staff and expertise to serve them."
Another nurse admitted to feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated "every single day".
"While some people in the public fight over immunization and public health measures, it feels like those in healthcare are fighting to keep their desire to work. These are very difficult times for many," she said.