OMICRON is bringing the Fermanagh health service to its knees, not because of a surge in virus patients, but because of the record high number of medical and support staff currently in isolation.
Covid case numbers have been skyrocketing in the county this week, with Fermanagh recording its highest rate of infection since the pandemic began, leaving thousands of local people isolating at home after contracting the virus. Now, there are fears both the SWAH and local GP surgeries may not be able to provide a full service with so many members of staff quarantining.
The Western Trust was forced to issue several emergency workforce appeals over the past week, urging staff to give up their free time to come in to work at the SWAH.
While the number of Covid patients has not been rising in line with the surging virus case numbers, amid growing hope the Omicron variant is much less severe than previous strains of the virus, the SWAH is currently facing annual winter pressures and a general increase in demand alongside chronic staff shortages. This has led to warnings the Enniskillen hospital may not be able to retain its current bed capacity.
The problem is not just impacting the SWAH, either. One local GP has also told the Herald he fears his practice may not be able to maintain its full service, such is the severity of the staff shortages it is facing.
Dr Brendan O’Hare, senior partner at Western Rural Health Care which has over 16,000 patients at its practices in Ederney and Tyrone, said the good news was it appeared the Omicron variant was similar to “a bad head cold”, with much fewer symptoms than swine flu.
“With Omicron, whilst there are very, very large numbers of our patients with it, we’re not seeing very many sick people,” said Dr O’Hare.
“The big issue we’re having is our staff are being decimated. We have doctors who have it, nurses who have it, admin staff who have it. They’re all triple immunised, they all have very trivial symptoms.
“Some people can work from home, but we need boots on the ground, and that’s becoming a real challenge for us.”
“How do we care for the non Covid sick and terminally ill people, when no one is available to care for them?”
While the announcement the Covid isolation period had been reduced from ten to seven days last week was welcomed last Friday, taking the North in line with England, Dr O’Hare believes it should be further reduced again to five days, in line with the US.
“I can understand why our scientists and politicians are being cautious, but they’re being cautious to the point where they’re going to really affect our ability to facilitate services,” said the Enniskillen man. “Not for the Omicron patients, who don’t really need it, but for cancer and all the other conditions.”
Asking for the powers-that-be to “see the bigger picture” and reduce the isolation period. Dr O’Hare noted none of his practices’ patients were currently being treated for Covid in hospital.
“Those belonging to us in hospital who have it, are what we call incidental,” he explained. “They are there for other reasons and were found to have it.
“It is the impact this is having on staffing is the very biggest challenge at the minute,” he added.
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