IH facing staffing issues due to vaccine mandate, staff illness

895 staff lost to vax mandate

UPDATE: 12:45 p.m.

While Interior Health CEO Susan Brown said Thursday morning the health authority lost "approximately 800 staff" due to the COVID-19 vaccination requirement that went into effect last year, IH has since clarified 895 employees were fired for opting not to get the vaccine.

Interior Health employs approximately 21,000 people, so the 895 employees worked out to about 4.3 per cent of all IH staff.

Combined with unprecedented numbers of staff calling in sick in recent weeks, driven by the Omicron COVID-19 wave, IH has postponed about 1,200 surgeries in the past three weeks due to staffing challenges.

UPDATE: 11:45 a.m.

About 1,200 surgeries have been postponed in B.C.'s Interior in the past three weeks, due to thousands of healthcare workers calling in sick and a “significant portion” of staff being let go for opting not to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

During a press conference Thursday morning, Interior Health CEO Susan Brown said the health authority has been dealing with the two coinciding staffing issues, which has forced the health authority to postpone "non-urgent" surgeries across the region, and close some inpatient services in rural areas.

“Our staff sick calls are far beyond what we've ever seen in a respiratory flu and cold-like season, peaking to almost 900 a day at the worst times; a third of that is related to Omicron,” Brown said.

“Due to the public health order requiring healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated, we did actually lose a number of staff over a short period of time which made things very difficult for us. So two things happening within quite a short period of time which really made it challenging for staffing.”

Brown said about 800 healthcare workers in the Interior were let go as a result of the vaccine mandate for publicly funded healthcare staff, which came into effect last October. Interior Health lost the most staff of any health authority in B.C. due to the mandate

“It was quite devastating to us as an organization, so we are really looking to regain that loss and also surpass that,” Brown said. “There's a need throughout the whole of the Interior.”

Despite the impact to staffing, Brown said the mandate was “the right thing to do.”

“We are really sad that we had to lose those people, but it's for the protection of the people we serve,” Brown said. “We have quite an aging population within the Interior ... and it can create increased vulnerabilities in that population. It's so important that we do have staff that are vaccinated and we encourage all healthcare workers out there to do that.”

Wednesday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced all healthcare workers, including those in the private sector, will be required to be vaccinated for the virus, beginning March 24.

When IH announced its service disruptions back last month, it was expected to last four four weeks ­– until Feb. 16. Brown said Thursday she believes they have now passed the peak of staff sickness issues, and she hopes to see continued decreases in those numbers in the coming days.

“We will continue to monitor daily and get things back up and running as quickly as we can,” Brown said. “It's a day-by-day thing, but I think we're over the hump now, so my hope is that we will be able to honour that commitment of four weeks.”

If surgery postponements continue through the full four weeks, Brown said approximately 2,700 surgeries will have been postponed across the Interior. Over that same timeframe, about 2,800 “urgent” surgeries will have been performed.

Because it's still unclear how many surgeries will ultimately be impacted, Brown could not provide an estimate of when the backlog of postponements will be completed, but she said those surgeries that have been postponed will be prioritized.

ORIGINAL: 4 a.m.

Healthcare in the Interior has faced some of B.C.'s biggest challenges in recent weeks, as thousands of staff call in sick and hundreds of surgeries have been postponed.

During Wednesday's COVID-19 press conference, Health Minister Adrian Dix announced that between Jan. 30 and Feb. 5, 73 per cent of B.C.'s 548 cancelled surgeries occurred in the Interior Health region. This meant 400 “non-urgent, scheduled” surgeries were cancelled in the region due to staffing issues.

In comparison, Fraser Health, with a much higher population, were forced to cancel just 72 surgeries that same week, while Vancouver Coastal Health cancelled none.

Much of these staffing challenges likely stem from employees calling in sick, as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly in the province.

Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 6, 17,158 healthcare staff across the province called in sick, 3,389 of whom work in the Interior Health region.

“I want to particularly note the efforts in Interior Health,” Health Minister Dix said Wednesday.

“Both in terms of healthcare worker days lost but also in terms of surgeries cancelled, that's where we're facing some of our biggest challenges and where the staff at Interior Health continues to go above and beyond the call to work on behalf of all the people in the region.”

Dix praised the efforts of Interior Health CEO Susan Brown, in addition to all other staff working at IH.

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