Canadian hospitals strain as Omicron hits health workers

In this file photo taken on April 29, 2021, a healthcare worker dons a bouffant cap as staff treat patients suffering from COVID-19 at Humber River Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (COLE BURSTON / AFP)

MOSCOW / WASHINGTON / LONDON / BRUSSELS / CARACAS / TORONTO / MONTREAL / GENEVA /  ADDIS ABABA – The COVID-19 pandemic and its highly contagious Omicron variant have made a challenging staffing situation in Canada's hospitals worse.

Interviews with a dozen health care workers, including eight current and former nurses, reveal a health system strained by a pandemic wave that hit at the worst possible time – sickness sidelining staff as more COVID-19 patients than ever need hospitalization, forcing health workers exhausted by two unrelenting years to take on more work.

Job vacancies in Canada's health and social assistance sector increased by 78.8 percent between the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2021, according to Statistics Canada

Hospitals have been asking staff to forego holidays or take on overtime shifts. 

Canadians take pride in their public health system. But by failing to adequately invest in it, critics say, governments left it vulnerable to the ravages of a years-long public health emergency. If health workers leave and are not replaced – thanks to training and certification backlogs, capped wages or the perception of a punishing profession – that could hurt health system capacity.

Job vacancies in Canada's health and social assistance sector increased by 78.8 percent between the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2021, according to Statistics Canada.

Ontario's government, which has come under fire for capping the salaries of some public employees, including nurses, before the pandemic, said in a statement it added 6,700 health care workers and staff since the pandemic began and planned to add another 6,000 by March. It did not clarify whether this was a net increase.

Public health experts say Omicron's peak may be approaching in Canada, and Ontario announced plans last week to loosen restrictions. But for now the health worker crunch remains.

Some provinces have made provisions for health care workers to return to work soon after testing positive for COVID-19; Ontario is letting internationally trained nurses, who often face hurdles and long waits before being able to practice in Canada, get on-the-job experience in hospitals.

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The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa has reached 10,564,758 as of Sunday evening, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The specialized healthcare agency of the African Union said the death toll across the continent stands at 236,561 with 9,467,434 recoveries so far.

South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia are among the countries with the most cases on the continent, it said.
A police officer stands behind a white flower during a demonstration against COVID-19 vaccination in Brussels on Dec 19, 2021. (ARIS OIKONOMOU / AFP)

Tens of thousands of people protested in Brussels on Sunday against COVID-19 restrictions, some clashing with police who fired water cannon and tear gas to disperse them near the European Commission's headquarters.

The rally drew about 50,000 people, Belgian police said.

It was peaceful at first as protesters chanted and filled streets, waving placards and balloons with slogans like: "We want to be free again" and "No COVID slave ticket", a reference to vaccine passes required for certain activities.

Trouble flared later, with a building housing the European diplomatic service and a sandwich shop broken into, a Reuters journalist said. Police said more than 60 people were arrested, with three officers and 12 demonstrators taken to hospital.

In this file photo taken on Nov 30, 2021,
nurses tend to a patient, infected with the COVID-19 virus in an intensive care unit of the Pitie-Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. (THOMAS SAMSON / AFP)

International Council of Nurses

The Omicron-fueled wave of COVID-19 infections has led wealthy countries to intensify their recruitment of nurses from poorer parts of the world, worsening dire staffing shortages in overstretched workforces there, the International Council of Nurses said.

Sickness, burnout and staff departures amid surging Omicron cases have driven absentee rates to levels not yet seen during the two-year pandemic, said Howard Catton, CEO of the Geneva-based group that represents 27 million nurses and 130 national organizations.

To plug the gap, Western countries have responded by hiring army personnel as well as volunteers and retirees but many have also stepped up international recruitment as part of a trend that is worsening health inequity, he continued.

"We have absolutely seen an increase in international recruitment to places like the UK, Germany, Canada and the United States," Catton said in a Reuters interview based on a report he co-authored on COVID-19 and the global nursing force.

"I really fear this 'quick fix solution' – it's a bit similar to what we've been seeing with PPE (personal protective equipment) and vaccines where rich countries have used their economic might to buy and to hoard – if they do that with the nursing workforce it will just make the inequity even worse."

Even before the pandemic there was a global shortage of 6 million nurses, with nearly 90 percent of those shortages in low and lower-middle-income countries, according to ICN data.

A woman wearing a face mask leaves a subway station in Moscow on Jan 17, 2022, amid the ongoing coronavirus disease pandemic. (Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV / AFP)


Russia reported 63,205 COVID-19 infections in the past 24 hours, the highest daily count since the pandemic hit the country, taking the national tally to 11,108,191, the official monitoring and response center said Sunday.

The nationwide death toll grew by 679 to 326,112, while the number of recoveries increased by 23,045 to 10,023,622, according to the center.

Moscow reported 17,528 new cases, taking the capital's caseload to 2,174,536.

Around 82 million Russian citizens had received at least one dose of a vaccine and over 78 million of them had been fully vaccinated, while the level of herd immunity in the country stood at 64.4 percent, showed data released on Friday.  

In a recent undated handout image released by Buckingham Palace on April 5, 2020 Britain's Queen Elizabeth II records her address to the UK and the Commonwealth in relation to the coronavirus epidemic at Windsor Castle, west of London. (BUCKINGHAM PALACE / AFP)


Britain's Queen Elizabeth flew by helicopter to her Sandringham estate in East England on Sunday after delaying her traditional Christmas trip for a month due to COVID-19, a Buckingham Palace source said.

The queen flew from Windsor Castle to the residence in Norfolk, where she had spent Christmas with members of her family for decades before the pandemic struck in 2020.

The 95-year-old monarch has been at Windsor Castle to the west of London for most of the pandemic.

She will celebrate her Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years on the throne, this year.

Dr Anthony Fauci, White House Chief Medical Advisor and Director of the NIAID, gives and opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to COVID-19 and new emerging variants on Jan 11, 2022 at Capitol Hill in Washington DC. (GREG NASH / POOL / AFP)


Anthony Fauci, top US infectious disease expert, said Sunday he is confident that most states in the country will reach a peak of Omicron infection cases by mid-February.

"You never want to be overconfident when you're dealing with this virus," Fauci said in an interview with ABC.

"Things are looking good. We don't want to get overconfident, but they look like they're going in the right direction right now," he said.

Fauci said there are states in the northeast and in the upper midwest where cases have already peaked and declined "rather sharply." But cases are still rising in southern and western states.

"There may be a bit more pain and suffering with hospitalizations in those areas of the country that have not been fully vaccinated or have not gotten boosters," he warned.

The recent COVID-19 surge in the United States driven by the Omicron variant is leading to record high cases, hospitalizations, and critical shortages of healthcare staffs.

The country has recorded over 70 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 866,000 deaths as of Sunday afternoon, according to real-time data from Johns Hopkins University.


Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced on Sunday that the country has registered a record daily count of COVID-19 cases.

A total of 2,401 COVID-19 infections and three deaths from the disease were reported on Saturday, bringing the national counts to 467,864 and 5,402 respectively.

Maduro said that the pandemic has been "getting worse in recent days."

The Venezuelan president added that 96 percent of people aged over 18 have been vaccinated, calling on parents to immunize their children aged over two.

He said that the country will remain open despite surging cases to avoid damage to economic and commercial activities.