UK system under strain as healthcare workers contract COVID themselves

At the hospital in the South West of England where Joanna Poole works as an intensive care doctor and anesthesiologist, the past few weeks have been a blur of operations called off for lack of beds and a scramble to plug gaps in schedules due coronavirus cases among staff.

From day to day, she does not know who will be available for work, including herself. One day this month, she said, most of his department had to return home for testing after coming into contact with an infected colleague, upsetting the staffing schedule.

Poole, 32, wants to return to “normal functioning” when she knows her staff roster and has the opportunity to get to know her patients. “And then give them the surgery, don’t cancel anyone and have a day knowing what I’m doing when I get up in the morning,” she said with a sigh.

As an increase in the number of coronavirus cases continues to hit Britain, hospitals, clinics and ambulance services say it is shutting down their staff, especially thanks to the highly contagious omicron variant . The wave of infections has put severe pressure on the National Health Service, already strained by worker shortages caused by underfunding, Brexit and burnout after nearly two years of battling the pandemic.

Data projections from the Health Service Journal, a trade publication, have indicated that one in three National Health Service workers could be absent from work by New Years Eve if the current case rate persists. Britain surpassed 100,000 new cases for the first time since the start of the pandemic on Wednesday.

At the moment, there isn’t the kind of bed shortage that plagues hospitals during peaks of the pandemic. But the strain on the system from staff illnesses is evident across Britain. A London-based doctor responsible for planning said so many of his colleagues were calling sick with the virus that he couldn’t update the worklist quickly enough. A Leicester-based primary care doctor found himself the only senior doctor able to work in his practice this week.

Britain on Wednesday announced it was reducing to seven from 10 the number of days people are required to isolate after showing symptoms of COVID-19 – a change that officials said was based on updated advice from health experts, and that could help alleviate the staff shortage.

FILE – Dr Chris Hingston of University Hospital of Wales after receiving his COVID-19 vaccine in Cardiff, UK on December 8, 2020. Since then, he said, many staff suffered psychological trauma from the pandemic. (Andrew Testa / The New York Times)

As cases increase in their communities, many health workers contract the virus outside the workplace, through contact with family members, or in their daily lives.

While there is some evidence that the omicron variant can produce less severe symptoms than delta, it also appears to be up to twice as transmissible. This is likely to lead to a large number of infections, so even a small number of severe cases could still lead to increased hospitalizations, according to public health researchers.

Coronavirus patients make up around a quarter of all occupied intensive care beds in England, according to government statistics, and have been for some time. While the number of new admissions has increased slightly nationwide, experts expect more in the coming weeks. The health service last week advised hospitals to release patients as soon as medically possible in order to free up beds.

In some hospitals, elective surgeries have been canceled to free up resources, and some staff are being redeployed to more critical services. The health service has also asked authorities to prepare at a number of small field hospitals to deal with a potential influx of COVID patients, reported the Health Service Journal, a trade publication.

“We are under real pressure in terms of the number of staff we have on leave,” Chris Hopson, managing director of NHS Providers, the UK’s health workers’ organization, told BBC Breakfast on Tuesday. He said the number of healthcare workers sick or isolated after coming into close contact with those infected has skyrocketed in recent days.

In London, where the omicron variant hit particularly hard, absences fell from around 1,900 at the start of last week to 4,700 last Thursday, “and we know they’ve increased since,” Hopson said.

Last week, trying to reduce shortages, the government relaxed guidelines for vaccinated health workers who come in contact with someone with coronavirus, requiring them to self-isolate only if they are positive.

Pressures for the omicron variant are also being felt in the United States, where President Joe Biden on Tuesday unveiled plans to deploy 1,000 military medical professionals to help in overcrowded hospitals as the country braces for its own increase. cases.

Those working on the front lines of the pandemic, like Poole in Bristol, have already spent months dealing with the most heartbreaking aspects of the coronavirus, watching patients die because family members have been unable to visit them. She said hospital staff had worked for months on emergency schedules to provide care, but now feel overwhelmed by the prospect of another relentless wave of cases.

“You can feel that people are very worried about this idea that you might have to go back a year, like rewind, and do it all again,” she said. “They don’t have the resilience.”

For some, there is also the frustration of knowing that the majority of seriously ill people are people who have chosen not to be vaccinated.

Empty tables outside a restaurant in London on December 20, 2021 (Andrew Testa / The New York Times

Dr Ian Higginson, chief medical officer and vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, a professional association, said even before the new variant emerged he was concerned about the overall state of emergency care in Great Britain.

He said years of underinvestment and staff shortages had resulted in long patient waits, overcrowding and delayed ambulance services, and staff were already exhausted as winter approached.

“If we’re going to see a whole slew of new issues related to COVID, there is great concern about how the system is going to cope,” he said, “because it was not a system which was in good shape to begin with. . “

Carmen Sumadiwiria, 29, a cardiology nurse in London, said her unit had lost half of its staff in recent weeks because they had the coronavirus, self-isolate or had another illness. As a result, she had to take care of six patients during her shift, when she would usually take care of two or three.

“You just feel inadequate when you have so many patients and so little time,” Sumadiwiria said.

“Sometimes I’m so disoriented and exhausted that I don’t even know my left from my right,” she added, noting that after her shift that night, she had mistakenly taken off and put on her scrubs twice before realizing it was time to go home.

Parts of Britain have yet to be affected by the new wave of omicron. Chris Hingston, 46, an intensive care doctor at University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, said things have so far been manageable.

But the hospital is bracing for its own influx of new cases. Hingston said his department was already facing a shortage of nurses. After months of intense and demanding work during the first waves of the pandemic, many staff members suffered psychological trauma, he said.

“It was sometimes difficult to staff the beds the way we wanted,” he said. “We’re already very stretched out, and stretching further will be a big, big challenge.”

This weariness extends to areas of health services that are not treating coronavirus patients and that have also had to deal with months of strained capacity due to the pandemic.

Kamlesh Khunti, a Leicester-based primary care doctor, was the only senior doctor able to work in his practice this week. While he and his colleagues still manage to provide care for the time being, the practice has not been able to see as many patients as it normally does.

“People continue to work at an incredible pace and level so the will is still there,” he said.

But, he added, the reality is that when a wave of coronavirus begins in their area, absences will be inevitable.

“If they get the infection, it doesn’t matter what you want, if you’re infected you can’t work,” he said. “We are preparing for the worst.

Dorcas Gwata, 51, who works as a mental health emergency nurse at a London hospital, said although her hospital is not overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, she is concerned about the effects of workers’ illness and additional pressure on his colleagues.

“They are exhausted,” she said. “They are like soldiers at war.

But she said the system had been innovative in handling the crisis, that workers were doing the best they could and deserved to be recognized for their sacrifices.

“A very big part of my personal concern is that we keep our nurses, doctors, cleaners and carriers well cared for and validated,” she said. “They are forgotten now. Nobody applauds us.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.