Facing new COVID wave, staff at a French hospital say: ‘We’re exhausted’

December 16, 2021 - 6:14 PM
Doctor Ruxandra Divan, rests in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 patients at "Hopitaux Civils de Colmar" in Colmar, France, December 15, 2021. (Reuters/Yves Herman)

COLMAR, France — Doctor Ruxandra Divan, an intensive care anesthetist in eastern France, slumped down onto her haunches against a wall of her department, exhausted by the prospect of tackling a new COVID-19 wave with a depleted staff.

“It’s the tiredness,” said Divan on Wednesday, mid-way through her shift at the Colmar Hospital, near France‘s border with Germany and Switzerland. “People are fed up of dealing with patients who aren’t vaccinated. We are really tired.”

Healthcare systems across Europe are facing up to more COVID-19 admissions, with infection rates accelerating, and the added uncertainty of how the new Omicron variant will affect public health.

In the city of Colmar, the task is made harder because the teams who must tackle the new wave are depleted by large numbers on sick leave, by people quitting, and by the low morale of those who remain.

In her office, Doctor Elisabeth Gaertner, who runs the intensive care service for Colmar’s public hospital system, reviews her list of people who are on sick leave: 4 out of 20 care assistants, 5 out of 15 cleaners, 5 out of 37 nurses in surgical intensive care.

Other staff have quit, many of them lured away to work in private clinics, or in nearby Switzerland, for better pay and less taxing hours.

One factor alienating staff, she said, was that the vast majority of the most serious cases they had to treat in the latest wave were people who chose not to get vaccinated.

“There’s a feeling of anger and frustration,” among hospital staff, said Gaertner.

Fragile system

The healthcare system across France is feeling the cumulative strain of nearly two years of pandemic.

Health Minister Olivier Veran, in an October interview with French newspaper Liberation, said his ministry estimated there were nearly a third more vacancies for medical professionals this autumn than in the same period in 2019.

France‘s Scientific Council, which advises the government on COVID-19, said in an Oct. 5 report that the healthcare system “has been rendered fragile after this long period of COVID, where it has been constantly in the front line.”

Doctor Eric Thibaud, who runs the Emergency Department at Colmar hospital, said 10% of his staff are on sick leave.

In the past few weeks, one doctor from the department left to work somewhere else with fewer night and weekend shifts, a nurse had quit, and a receptionist had left.

His staff though is relatively stable, he said. Other units in the hospital had been hit worse.

“There is an enormous number of departures of people who are exhausted, who are changing their lives, who don’t want to subject themselves to what they have been dealing with for the past years, and which has got worse recently.”

In the Intensive Care department where Dr. Divan works, all 13 beds are now occupied by COVID-19 patients. Of these, 11 are unvaccinated. All are relatively young. They have been intubated and are being ventilated.

The frustrating part for staff, she said, was this outcome could have been avoided if the same people had opted to get vaccinated.

“People are finding it harder and harder to come and care for COVID patients,” said Divan, who moved to France from Romania. “Why all this mistrust towards the vaccine? I don’t understand.”

—Writing by Christian Lowe Editing by Alexandra Hudson