A bald man in a suit and wearing a mask stands at a microphone
Dr. Todd Hatchette, Chief of the Microbiology lab, Nova Scotia Health.  Photo: Jennifer Henderson

Omicron and the BA.2 variant continue to play havoc with staffing at Nova Scotia hospitals, which have postponed most non-urgent, elective surgeries for a second week, and with no end in sight. There are currently 577 health care workers off the job because they have COVID-19 or someone in their immediate family has been infected. Dr. Todd Hatchette, the chief of the microbiology lab for Nova Scotia Health, told the health committee at the Nova Scotia Legislature on Tuesday that this could be “the new normal” for several weeks.

“If you look at positivity rates — currently running at 30% — they have not gone down,” Hatchette said. “The continuing spread is ongoing and I am not sure we have peaked yet. Unless we can stop community spread, we are going to see continuing cases, which will put pressure on the health system — both in the number of people who are admitted and the number of people who are absent because they or someone in their family has COVID.”

Asked what citizens can do to help, Hatchette said there is no question wearing masks in indoor spaces and getting a booster shot to increase immunity against the virus would help slow down what he described as “unmitigated spread.”

“I know the public appetite for wearing masks is very low, as is the political appetite,” Hachette noted. Booster shot numbers are also not where they could be with only 63% of people over 18 having made the effort to get a third shot. Fourth doses for immunocompromised people and those over 70 years of age will be made available soon with information on how to book expected this week.

During Question Period yesterday, Opposition leader Iain Rankin asked Premier Tim Houston why — with hospital beds running at 98 % occupancy and ICU at 85% — the government would endorse a “Get Back Out There” marketing campaign that will only spread more COVID?

Premier Houston replied saying, “Look, the pandemic is advancing and the virus is changing. We know case numbers are up; they are up everywhere in North America. But our health care workers dig in, they are getting it done, despite the stress on the system, and I want to thank them for keeping Nova Scotians safe.”

Nova Scotia Health grappling with staff shortages

Meanwhile, Karen Oldfield, the president and CEO of Nova Scotia Health, said she is unable to predict when surgeries will return to a full schedule, let alone tackle a backlog that has climbed to 27,000 patients. Oldfield said only three weeks ago the operating rooms were running at 90% capacity. Now the only orthopedic surgeries getting done are those that can be carried out during the day and do not require an overnight stay. “Where we can do it, we’re doing it,” Oldfield said.

She described the current staffing situation in hospitals as “a slow burn rather than a spike” and suggests it could be resolved by going to an “overstaffing model.” The problem, of course, is there aren’t enough health care workers in the first place. Oldfield said Nova Scotia Health will attempt to bring back people back from retirement and intensify recruitment efforts.

There is no plan being shared publicly at this moment about how to address the backlog of people who have had their surgery postponed once or even twice. Deputy Health Minister Jeannine LaGassé said she will be attending federal-provincial meetings at the end of this month to learn the details around a $2 billion fund in the federal budget to reduce wait lists. Nova Scotia’s share will be about $51,000,000, but money alone is unlikely to resolve what Dr. Hatchette referred to as “continuing hospitalizations due to COVID.”

If longer waits for surgery are an unintended consequence of the Houston government’s decision to lift all public health restrictions  and making masking an individual responsibility, that could really setback Houston’s efforts to “fix” health care. So far, no waitlists for any type of surgery have come down and the pandemic has made a mockery of election promises.

Also during Question Period, the Speaker booted out NDP leader Gary Burrill, who refused to retract his statement that called the premier’s decision to appeal a court decision to the Supreme Court of Canada “a hypocritical betrayal of the disabled community.” In October Premier Houston said he would “do the right thing” and not appeal a Nova Scotia Court of Appeal decision that empowers disabled people to receive the same amount of income assistance and housing as those without a disability. In December, the province asked the Supreme Court of Canada for clarification around how that decision would affect programs and services. Yesterday Premier Houston said his government is “working quickly” to get people out of institutions, but that he had made a mistake by speaking “too quickly” to the issue in October.

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Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. I thought Lisa Barrett said it best when replying to Todd Battis in a recent 6:40pm interview. Very politely said that NB’s 10 recent deaths should not be made normal or made trivial, I forget her exact wording. Todd, the guy with the often inappropriate stupid grin, did just that in his question. Basis was steady deaths was a good hing.

    Houston clearly ok with 1 or 2 deaths a day. Bring back indoor masks. Perhaps even 50% capacity.