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Urgent government action needed to tackle COVID-19 health-care crisis, medical leaders warn

Urgent action from all levels of government is needed to bring Canada’s strained health-care system “back to life” as the COVID-19 pandemic keeps raging, medical leaders warned in a Wednesday briefing.

The remarks followed an emergency summit Tuesday night, which brought together more than 30 national and provincial health organizations including the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) and the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA).

Leaders from both the CMA and CNA said the summit discussions confirmed there are high levels of burnout among health-care workers, chronic under-staffing issues, and an urgent need for government intervention and longer-term supports.

There was “such a sense of hopelessness last night,” CMA president Dr. Katharine Smart told reporters during a virtual briefing.

“It has been nearly two years since the first headlines of what we know now to be COVID-19, and since that time, health-care workers have been at the forefront,” said CNA president Tim Guest.

“Our front-line workers are no longer on the brink of exhaustion,” said Smart. “They are exhausted.”

‘No light at the end of this tunnel’

Smart said the current health-care crisis is unacceptable and called for immediate relief for health-care workers in COVID-19 hot zones.

“We need governments to listen to what front-line workers are telling them … 19 months into this pandemic, there is no light at the end of this tunnel.” She said the onus is on all levels of government to help bring the health-care system “back to life.”

Guest said there needs to be a multi-pronged solution to address current levels of burnout and staffing issues, provide long-term, sustainable mental health supports for health-care workers, and implement better data collection to determine staffing gaps. 

urgent government action needed to tackle covid 19 health care crisis medical leaders warn
National and provincial health organizations are concerned about growing surgical backlogs due to COVID-19 cases and the effect that will have on patients’ quality of life for years to come. (Alberta Health Services)

Smart acknowledged efforts made to date, including mobilizing the Canadian Armed Forces, have been helpful. But she also stressed the need to remove jurisdictional issues around licensure, allowing workers to move between provinces more easily. 

Canada needs a better plan going forward to manage its health-care resources, and has long trained too few physicians, Smart said.

“There are no easy fixes,” she acknowledged.

The CMA and other organizations are already working together to lobby the government to create a national health workforce agency to better plan for the future of health human resources, Linda Silas, president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, previously told the Canadian Press.

Alberta health-care workers now ‘demoralized’

Smart said another key request from Canada’s medical community is for various government officials to take ownership of their role in the current COVID-19 crisis.

“Health-care workers want our leaders to be honest,” she said.

In hard-hit Alberta, which recently tightened some restrictions and has delayed or postponed around 8,500 surgeries to handle a surge of largely-unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, Guest said health-care teams are “extremely demoralized” while the overall system is on the brink of collapse.

Health-care workers have also shared stories of being afraid to walk in and out of work, over fears of being accosted by members of the public, he said. 

“We just can’t have those additional stresses.”

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