Sea to Sky doctors are reporting that lines at Squamish’s COVID-19 testing site have grown far longer since late December, a testament to the rapid rise of the Omicron variant.
At the same time, Squamish is wrestling with a shortage of family doctors.
On Jan. 18, the executive director of the Sea to Sky Division of Family Practice Society said before the latest variant, the average day would have 60 to 80 people visit the testing site, located at the former Shady Tree Pub.
However, things have taken a dramatic turn.
“More recently, on a good day, if we saw 100 people that would be a nice quiet day. If we saw 500 people that would be a very busy day. And, of course, there’s all points in between,” said Monica McDonald.
“But up until the Omicron variant, we were quite satisfied seeing 60 to 80 people per day presenting for testing in Squamish. The odd day it might hit 100, and we’d think, ‘Wow, that was big.’”
For many healthcare workers on the front lines, it’s been a long couple of years, McDonald said. No one expected the testing site would have to be operating for this long.
The new variant has also taken its toll.
“We’ve had a very long winter. The last two weeks have felt like 100 years at that site, but we are still there, so that’s something to be proud of,” she said.
“Certainly, none of us could have anticipated the urgency that Omicron has brought to the testing site.”
Lineups started to skyrocket around the week of Dec. 20, though McDonald noted that not everyone who received a test wound up with a positive result.
As far as staffing for Squamish goes, the area was already short on family doctors to begin with. The added pressure of the pandemic hasn’t been conducive to retaining people, McDonald noted.
Even when they’re not working at a testing site or hospital, doctors are still taking on additional work at their clinics.
For example, McDonald said, many people will still call into a family doctor clinic with the expectation that they can get tested there.
Family clinics don’t do testing, but patients don’t know this. As a result, clinics will still get swamped with requests, which is taxing on the staff working there.
“We have had one or two physicians in the last year or two make decisions to leave their practice,” she said.
“They have, thankfully, found other physicians to take on those patient loads, but it takes a long time to find a family physician who is willing to live in a community where the real estate prices are so high. And I would suggest that family practice as a business model is under a great deal of pressure. And, I would say, it’s quite threatened, even in our small town.”
McDonald said that one family practitioner is required for roughly every 800 to 900 residents.
If one assumes Squamish has about 24,000 residents, that would add up to about 28 full-time practitioners.
So far, the latest estimates show that between 6,000 and 7,000 residents in Squamish still need a family practitioner, McDonald said.
That would mean at least eight new family doctors would have to come to the community, she said.
Attracting that much talent is a big challenge, she said.
“That’s eight new practitioners who need space to practice, who need a reasonably affordable home to live in, whose partner may desire specific career or educational opportunities which are in lower supply in Squamish than they are in larger urban settings,” she wrote in a follow-up email.
At the same time, there’s a need to take care of long-time physicians who might be winding up their practice.
“How do you ensure that their practice continues to thrive during their transition away from working as a full-time physician? It’s delicate work and we need to be mindful that we don’t create new problems as we attempt to address any existing ones,” McDonald said.
In the meantime, her association has joined with the North Shore and Sunshine Coast organizations to hire a regional recruiter.
One doctor in Squamish has also created a welcome committee for new physicians that’s designed to showcase all the town’s attractions, she added.
The town’s continually growing population is also a concern when it comes to finding enough family doctors.
“I do cringe a little bit when I see development permits go up for, say, a 15 or 20 unit townhouse complex, because I think, ‘Wow, that is how many new residents? How many new people who might need a physician?’ said McDonald.
“If we create 800 heads on pillows we need another doctor.”