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Members of the Ottawa Paramedic Service escort a patient into the emergency department of The Ottawa Hospital on April 18.Spencer Colby/The Globe and Mail

Health authorities across Canada say they are weathering the sixth wave of the pandemic better than they did previous surges, but they warn that their ability to perform surgeries and other patient care could be hampered by sickness-related work absences, as doctors and nurses continue catching COVID-19.

Lucie Opatrny, an associate deputy minister of health in Quebec, said health care worker absences owing to COVID-19 are the biggest limiting factor in the province’s ability to tackle its surgical waiting list. Roughly 13,000 workers are currently missing from the system because of COVID-19 exposures or illness, she said. But that number is lower than it was in December and January.

Quebec’s waiting list for surgeries has remained stable over the past three months, at roughly 159,000 patients, compared with 120,000 patients prepandemic. (The wait-list covers all surgical cases – even those where patients have been waiting for very short periods of time.)

Dr. Opatrny attributed the lack of recent wait-list growth to the province’s high vaccination rate, which she said has tempered the severity of COVID-19 infections among medical staff.

“It seems that for the majority of people, when they have COVID, they are able to be away for a short amount of time before returning,” she said. “So they are returning to work quite quickly.”

In Ottawa, the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario said some surgeries were being cancelled because workers had to stay home after contracting or being exposed to COVID-19.

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The hospital said 191 health care workers were recently absent on a single day. The facility’s all-time high was 199 absent workers, during the fifth wave in January.

“Our team continues to step up, as they have throughout the pandemic, but it’s getting harder and harder for them to do, as they are living with the exhaustion of working with COVID for 25 months,” the hospital said in a statement.

“Despite our available staff picking up shifts, it is often not possible to cover all the shifts for those who cannot enter the building due to contact with or infection from COVID in the community.”

The Saskatchewan Medical Association said absences by health care workers have impacted services in the province’s emergency rooms, adding that it expected the situation at hospitals to get worse after the Easter long weekend.

“We know the numbers before the weekend were going up dramatically. We see it in emergency rooms and we see it in offices,” said Eben Strydom, president of the association.

“Looking at historic trends, we know that any time people travel and gather in bigger groups, there’s definitely increased risk.”

The London Health Services Centre in Ontario said it will have to decide in coming days whether further changes to patient care are necessary, as it deals with significant impacts from the sixth wave.

“At this time, health human resources are our biggest challenge,” LHSC executive vice-president Cathy Vandersluis said in a statement.

“Like many health care organizations across the province, we are seeing a large number of staff off work due to testing positive or isolating after close contact with a positive case.” The facility is doing its best to minimize the impact on patient care, she added.

Dr. Styrdom called on Canadians to take necessary precautions to protect the people around them and help limit the impact of COVID-19 on hospitals.

“We hope people will still be careful and go for the vaccines and boosters. This is a big team effort and all of us can help to reduce the risk,” he said.

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