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Matthew Douma, emergency nurse and adjunct professor of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, is seen in Edmonton, Nov. 28, 2020.Megan Albu/The Globe and Mail

At the end of a gruelling shift at the hospital, Meighan Jones feels gutted when she reads about anti-mask rallies and social-media posts playing down the risks of COVID-19.

Ms. Jones, an emergency department nurse in Edmonton, says that even though she and her co-workers appreciated the displays of support they received in the spring – the nightly banging of pots and pans, the signs in people’s windows – they never asked for such attention and were never comfortable being labelled as heroes. But now, when they’re short-staffed, drained and attending to a growing number of COVID-19 patients, the disregard many people seem to have for public-health guidelines feels like a personal blow.

“We’re not asking for a lot of applause. We’re not asking for gifts. We’re not asking for anything,” she said, noting that in her 12 years as an emergency nurse, she has never seen her colleagues so depleted and demoralized. “All we’re really wanting is for people just to follow the public-health guidelines and do their best to minimize the spread of the disease so that we don’t get overwhelmed.”

After more than eight months on the front lines of the pandemic, nurses across Alberta are struggling with burnout. And as hospitals receive a second wave of COVID-19 patients, many fear they will be unable to provide adequate care to those who need it.

The number of Albertans hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased sharply in the past month, with a seven-day average of 470 hospitalizations, of which 94 were in intensive care units as of Dec. 5, an increase of 270 per cent and 395 per cent, respectively, since Nov. 1.

While Alberta Health Services has said it can increase the number of adult ICU beds in the province from the current 173 to 425, Heather Smith, the president of the United Nurses of Alberta, says her union members are already stretched thin.

“We don’t have health personnel waiting to rush into our province. So for many, it’s today’s exhaustion and fear, but [also] the sense that there is no light in terms of being relieved,” she said.

The pandemic has made pre-existing nursing shortages worse at some emergency departments and ICUs.

Ms. Jones says several of her senior co-workers have left out of sheer exhaustion. She has contemplated joining them, especially since there is no financial incentive to stay; registered nurses in Alberta are paid the same, regardless of the department in which they work.

Kerry Williamson, a spokesperson for Alberta Health Services, says the provincial health system recognizes that staffing is a challenge, owing in part to workers falling ill and quarantine requirements. AHS has numerous employee health and wellness programs to address issues such as stress management and fatigue, he says.

“We are doing everything we can to support our staff, especially those on the frontlines,” he said in an e-mail.

Mr. Williamson says AHS is taking steps to increase staffing capacity, including increasing hours for part-time and casual staff up, redeploying trained staff and expediting training to ensure the most critical areas are covered.

Even so, Matthew Douma, an emergency nurse in Edmonton and adjunct professor of critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, says it’s unrealistic to expect that new graduates and nurses from other areas who are now receiving rapid training in critical care can provide the same kind of care as nurses who have worked for years in that specialty.

Although emergency departments have seen a drop in patient volumes since the start of the pandemic, their efficiency has also plummeted, due to infection-control protocols such as the donning and doffing of personal protective equipment for every patient interaction, Mr. Douma says. “It’s a huge reduction in their actual ability to provide care.”

Dealing with COVID-19 is not the only reason Lisa Watt feels burnt out these days. Ms. Watt, an emergency department nurse in Edmonton, has seen the number of people dying or requiring resuscitation from opioid overdoses skyrocket this year, as the pandemic disrupted drug supply chains. Patients on methamphetamines and other substances seem more volatile and violent than ever. And people arriving in emergency departments with various conditions are far sicker than they would have been if they had sought medical attention earlier, she says.

Some visitors are dishonest about their respiratory symptoms, she adds. When this happens, and staff are exposed, they need to take time off work, adding to staff shortages.

Moreover, Ms. Watt laments having to limit the number of people allowed in to say goodbye to dying loved ones – and making sure they do so in full protective gear.

“It is what it is, and we do what we do, but you know, seeing somebody kiss their husband goodbye through a mask is pretty sad.”

To immediately alleviate the pressure health care workers are facing, it is necessary to prevent people from getting COVID-19 and requiring hospital care in the first place, Ms. Smith says. That means bending the curve with measures such as the mandatory wearing of masks. “We really have to address what’s happening outside the walls of hospitals if we want to get through this in any kind of sane way.”

In the meantime, Ms. Jones says that even though she sometimes feels tempted to leave her job, she imagines the kind of professional care she would want for herself or a loved one if they were brought in on a stretcher.

“I know the more of us that leave, the less likely that becomes,” she said. “I wouldn’t want that for my family, and so I’ll stay for other people’s families at this point.”

With reports from Danielle Webb

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