‘We’ve had a stormy two weeks’: Hospital grapples with COVID-related staff absences

SAH recruits three much-needed specialists; expects a balanced end to fiscal year 2021-22

Sault Area Hospital continues despite reports of COVID-positive staff, its doctors monitoring COVID-positive patients in the ICU.

“I’m pleased to report that after a stormy couple of weeks at the hospital, we’re seeing some improvement in our staff’s COVID-related absence,” said Sue Roger, SAH’s vice president of clinical operations and chief nursing officer in addressing the SAH board of directors at their monthly meeting was held virtually on Monday.

More than 80 staff members were recently COVID-free, Roger told the board.

“We are seeing a recovery of personnel that is helping significantly.”

Roger said four SAH units have experienced COVID outbreaks since the last board meeting in March.

Those units are Transition House, a halfway house that provides 24-hour supportive care to adults diagnosed with a serious mental illness, as well as 3B, 3C and 1B.

Transition House is out of outbreak, while 3B and 3C will be out of outbreak status on May 1.

1B has up to seven COVID-positive patients as of Monday, that unit is projected to come out of the outbreak on May 3.

“There’s a lot in the news about ICU numbers,” Roger noted.

Provincewide on Monday, there were 214 ICU patients, 24 in Northern Ontario and four in SAH, Roger said.

“We have done very well during the pandemic period with these types of patients in our ICU, so we anticipate a full recovery for all of these patients.”

Roger said there are no issues with “critical drug supply” but there are other supply chain issues facing the organization.

“So we are diligent with the work that we are doing, particularly with our PPE and our single-use equipment. We’re just making sure we keep moving forward, but there are certainly some hiccups along the way,” said Roger.

Of the more than 80 SAH employees recently absent due to COVID, Roger said “not all units are affected”

“It seems like we have a concentration of COVID-positive patients in the ICU, and then when they recovered, 3A, or the operating room, was inundated with COVID-related absences. Today we are at 66 absences but they are from the entire organization. It seems that all departments, regardless of whether they are clinical, support, non-clinical, administrative, have had people off site in the last few weeks. Contacts at home have been closely monitored, particularly when children have returned to school.”

Staff have been encouraged to call in their health and do rapid home tests to ensure they are negative before reporting to work.

“We haven’t had to move to a critical staffing model like some organizations have, where asymptomatic positive staff have had to come to work. We haven’t done that in this community. We haven’t had the need to go out. To be honest, we have had very limited staffing in almost every department in the organization, extending hours for staff who are willing to work. Sometimes it feels like a patchwork day to day, but we have managed to maintain the entire service and have not closed anything for our patients,” said Roger.

“It’s been a long two years and it seems like, for the most part, we’ve been extremely lucky at Sault Area Hospital,” said Sharon Kirkpatrick, chair of the SAH board.

In other hospital news:

New specialists arrive at SAH.

The hospital has successfully recruited two urologists and a gastroenterologist. All three specialists are anticipated to be in Sault and working by September.

A general surgeon is leaving SAH but is actively recruiting for a replacement. 11 candidates from across North America have been interviewed.

SAH administrators are still preparing the hospital’s 2022-23 budget, said Lisa Bell-Murray, vice president of the board.

Financial results for February 2022 show a shortfall of just over $400,000 for SAH, compared to a planned budget shortfall of just under $5 million.

That much better-than-anticipated result is primarily due to the province’s COVID-related funding to offset volume-based funding, as the hospital was unable to perform certain procedures due to COVID restrictions during the last fiscal year.

“We hope to have a balanced position as we approach and finish our year-end on March 31,” Bell-Murray said.

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