Ontario may be hard pressed to get nurses from other parts of Canada to help it cope with the pandemic because some provinces and territories are experiencing their own shortages, says the head of a professional association that represents nurses across the country.
Tim Guest, president of the Canadian Nurses Association, said New Brunswick, Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, for example, have all struggled with vacancies.
The only provinces with increases in nurses relative to their adult populations since 2016 are Alberta, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador. “All the rest have dropped,” he said.
P.E.I., however, has a shortage of intensive care unit nurses.
“We’ve been seeing increasing vacancies in nurses for a period of time. This isn’t a new phenomenon that we’re just seeing now within the pandemic,” he said on Sunday. “There are certainly challenges across the country.”
Ontario made an appeal in a letter to other provincial and territorial governments on Friday to send their nurses to the province as it continues to grapple with a surge of COVID-19 cases.
Before the pandemic, Guest said there were vacancies of nurses evident largely in specialty areas, such as operating rooms, intensive care units, emergency departments, long term care homes and rural and remote communities, he added.
As well, a number of trends have contributed to vacancies, he said.
Nurses have options, they are a mobile workforce, some have indicated they want to quit after the pandemic because of working conditions, baby boomers who were nurses have begun to retire and the U.S. likes to recruit Canadian nurses, he added.
‘Ontario needs help’
Guest acknowledged that the nursing shortage has become a “more urgent situation” in Ontario in recent months.
“The reality of it is that Ontario is trying to increase its capacity,” he said.
But nurses are the predominant worker in ICUs, and without nurses, it is impossible to operate the physical space, he added.
“Ontario needs help. They don’t have enough ICU nurses in order to operate all that they believe they need to to increase their capacity to meet the surge they’re seeing coming.”
The Ontario government did not heed warnings from medical experts, he added.
“There have been many experts interviewed on media for months that have provided recommendations and verbalized warnings that this was coming and there was a need to be prepared for it. I think the reality is certainly there and there is a need to act. And that’s why the request has come out,” he said.
Guest suggested one solution is that Canada reduce elective surgeries across the country to free up critical care nurses, while another solution is the federal government could support Ontario with nurses from the Canadian Armed Forces.
Ontario sent letter to all provinces, territories
On Sunday, the Ontario health ministry repeated its appeal for nurses to come to Ontario to help the province care for patients with COVID-19.
“As the province continues to add more critical care capacity, we are exploring every potential measure to bolster Ontario’s health care workforce,” Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Health Minister Christine Elliott, said in an email.
“This includes seeking support from our provincial and territorial partners for frontline health care staff to assist in staffing Ontario’s critical care beds, in addition to ongoing provincial initiatives to bolster the workforce and ensure our trained health care professionals are deployed where they are needed most.”
In a letter to all provinces and territories sent on Friday, Ontario’s Deputy Health Minister Helen Angus said the province needs thousands of nurses and she asked whether they had any available that could be deployed to the province.
Hospital capacity, particularly in ICUs, has become strained due to rising numbers of patients with COVID-19 in southern Ontario, Angus said.
Ontario is expected to have a shortage of 4,145 nurses in the hospital sector over the next four months, Angus said. She asked her counterparts for 620 health professionals, including 500 nurses and 100 respiratory therapists.
“We are projecting a need for this critical support for four months following the anticipated peak of the third wave,” Angus wrote.
The association represents registered nurses, nurse practitioners, licensed and registered practical nurses, registered psychiatric nurses and retired nurses across Canada.