Omicron Covid variant could hit hospital staffing levels hard BHB warns
The contagious new strain of the coronavirus virus could deplete the King Edward VII Memorial Hospital of vital medical staff, the Bermuda Hospitals Board has warned.
A spokeswoman for the BHB said the Omicron variant could force staff to take time off work in large numbers, which would stretch healthcare services.
The spokeswoman said: “The highly infectious nature of Omicron is our biggest worry right now as staff who become positive and their close contacts will be off work and staff who have children or household members who fall sick will also be impacted.
“We know the Omicron variant is more infectious than Delta and that Omicron is spreading quickly in countries around the world, including the Bermuda community.
“In the UK, hospitals are being impacted by staff positive cases and this is happening in advance of increasing hospitalisations.
“We have to be prepared for what we will do if large numbers are impacted so that if it happens we can act swiftly.”
The spokeswoman added that contingency plans were being drawn up – including drafting in overseas staff – if KEMH staff had to take time off because of illness.
But the spokeswoman drew the line at suggestions that Covid-19-infected doctors and nurses would be allowed to treat patients.
“We test staff regularly as well but it is always possible someone doesn’t know they are infected at any one point in time.
“If a positive is discovered, then the person will be off work whether they are symptomatic or not.
“We will continue to manage in this way and would only even consider varying this on an individual case basis after careful review of the risks and if all other options were exhausted.
“There are certainly options that we will go through before taking that measure.”
The spokeswoman said: “We meet very regularly with government and we continue to discuss the pressures on us and our planned responses. We do not implement decisions in isolation.
“Managing healthcare services through crises must be anticipatory and proportionate to the risks and so we continually look not only at where we are but what might happen and how we might respond.
“As Covid waves unfold there are also pressure points and emergencies that we have to respond to and we work closely with government throughout.
“It has been a feature of all the coronavirus variants that there are many people who are asymptomatic – so do not know they have Covid – but can carry the virus and infect others.
“For this very reason, we currently operate with the knowledge that any one individual could be positive – whether they are healthcare worker or a patient in hospital for another reason.
“We therefore wear protection and follow standards that protect staff and patients in case they are positive and don’t know it.”
The spokeswoman said that during the summer surge of cases there were 70 staff off sick at one time.
She added: “We were able to manage through redeployment of staff to critical areas and reducing activity in elective and outpatient areas where possible.
The spokeswoman responded to questions from The Royal Gazette after Michael Richmond, the BHB’s chief executive, last week confirmed that doctors infected with the coronavirus could be forced to work to keep emergency services running.
Dr Richmond told ZBM News: “We have this new variant of Omicron but the information appears to be incomplete.
“We are probably most concerned at this stage what impact it will have on our staff and our ability to staff critical hospital services.”
Dr Richmond said whether asymptomatic staff would be allowed to treat patients was a “very difficult and very challenging question”.
He added: “In general terms, we would do everything in our powers to stop that happening, but in terms of … if critical services could only be maintained with best managing that risk, that is something that we would have to consider going forward. That’s a bridge that we haven’t crossed yet.”
A health ministry spokeswoman said: “The clinical and operational management of the hospital is a matter for the leadership of the Bermuda Hospitals Board.
“They make life-saving decisions every day, balancing many factors in the provision of the best patient care.
“What is important is that we, as a community, do all that we can to prevent decisions such as this being made.
“We have done it before and there is no reason to think that we will not do it again.”