In New Brunswick, the staffing issues facing hospitals existed before COVID-19.
However, as the global pandemic continues, those representing workers in all sectors of health care said more cracks in the foundation of the province’s health-care system are showing.
Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union, said nurses are physically and mentally exhausted.
“Everybody is struggling right now,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Recently, the province’s English health authority, Horizon Health Network, put a call out on social media encouraging any registered nurses and licensed practical nurses to take shifts, if they could.
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Doucet said that speaks to a sense of desperation but also a way to show the public just how much the health-care system is struggling to maintain the basics.
“I think it is also to let the public know that everything is not OK,” she said.
She said some nurses are working 24-hour shifts to maintain units and some hospitals are combining units to make the resources that are available stretch as far as possible.
The problem existed before the pandemic, Doucet added, but no one dealt with it then either.
“That’s all the pandemic has done because long before that we were saying that we were short-staffed and nobody heeded our warnings,” she said. “Here we are in the middle of a major crisis and trying to do the best we can.”
However, as the staffing shortages continue, the two health authorities continue to post closures of rural emergency rooms in the evenings and on weekends, as well as urban ERs being unable to handle non-urgent cases.
On April 26, the George-L.-Dumont Hospital in Moncton was reported to have a shortage of nursing staff and couldn’t treat non-urgent cases until further notice.
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On April 28, the Sussex Health Centre also reported that due to a shortage of staff, the emergency room would be closing early all weekend long.
It seems, according to Doucet, that no unit or specialty has been untouched by long-term vacancies, people leaving their jobs or illness.
“I think if they don’t rest, if they don’t get a break, they are going to start leaving, more and more,” she said.
‘We’re short-staffed everywhere’
Charline Cormier, who represents workers in CUPE Local 821, said things have never been worse.
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“We’re all short-staffed everywhere,” she said. “The hospital is still up just because the employees are working a lot of overtime.”
She said without the overtime and people stepping up to work, the hospital would not operate. For example, some people are working up to 30 hours of overtime.
The shortage extends into housekeeping, employees who transport patients, the pharmacy sector and even clerical administration.
Part-time and casual staff, she said, are all working full-time hours.
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“The members are very tired, overwhelmed,” she said. “I mean, we’ve been in this situation for, it’s not the last six months, we’re looking a few years back and it’s just getting worse and worse.”
Cormier said the union held many meetings with the health authority — in this case, Vitalite Health Network — warning it that one major event could push the staffing situation over the edge.
“They are starting to refuse overtime,” she said. “We don’t know what is going to come of that because there is overtime every day.”
She said on a weekend, there is only one person to transport patients around the hospital, otherwise known as porters.
“So, she’s running around doing the whole hospital, all weekend, by herself,” she said. “We picked her up Monday morning crying and she’s tired.”
Cormier said it is hard to reassure members who are coming to her overworked and tired.
“We’ve been having problems in health-care for the last couple of years,” she said. “We’ve been on their backs telling them ‘it’s coming,’ and that’s where we are right now. It’s frustrating because we saw it happening.”
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Alana Best, who represents the CUPE local in Sackville, was unable to speak to Global News in person because she was working a 12-hour shift. She represents different classifications including environmental services, food services, maintenance, medical device reprocessing, and support and clerical staff.
“I think it’s safe to say each and every department has had a struggle with staffing at some point in time,” she said. “In some cases, like (emergency), they have to close it down because there just isn’t anyone to work.”
Department aware of challenges
The Department of Health said it is aware and agrees there are challenges around staffing in the hospital system but said in an email statement that “the COVID-19 response has made a difficult situation more demanding for our staff on the frontlines.”
The statement stopped short of providing any immediate solution to the ongoing staffing crisis but made mention of several long-term commitments made by the government in recent months.
“The new health plan recognizes that having enough human resources now and in the future requires transformation and investment,” the statement said. “New nursing seats have been added at the University of New Brunswick and the Universite de Moncton.”
Horizon Health Network also mentioned in an interview on Wednesday that it had recruited a little more than 100 new nursing staff but it will take time to get them through training and orientation before they can work within the system.
Brenda Kinney, vice-president with Horizon Health Network and chief nursing officer, said on Wednesday that there are tough times ahead.
“I have to be honest, it’s going to be a challenging summer, for sure.”
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