As the COVID-19 pandemic puts increased pressure on an already strained health-care system, many nurses are at their breaking point.
“The system is in crisis,” according to Chilliwack General Hospital emergency room physician Dr. Marc Greidanus.
“Most health-care workers are stressed and running low right now, but the nurses are bearing the brunt of it.”
Greidanus was there on Sept. 17 in front of Chilliwack MLA Dan Coulter’s constituency office along with nurses, their family members and supporters for a rally focusing on the nursing crisis that is leaving some to leave the profession.
Participants had signs that said things like “Done asking for safe staffing” and “Patients deserve more”.
Greidanus’s sign said “We Need Nurses” on the front, and on the back: “Stat.”
In the first wave of the pandemic, the main concern was that COVID-19 patients would overrun emergency rooms and hospitals and that would lead to a ventilator shortage. The system more or less tackled that problem, but overlooked was the human cost.
“We prepared well for ventilator shortages,” he said. “We emptied the wards efficiently during the first wave. The lack of action as we experience critical staff shortages is shocking. The system is buckling and there is no reaction.
“COVID has exacerbated an existing systemic problem. We have been running on the keen edge for years. A nurse showing up to work today is often expected to do the work of two people. And if no one is booked to replace them at shift change they can be forced to work overtime.”
The rally at Coulter’s office had the support of the unions representing nurses both provincially and federally.
“The BC Nurses’ Union (BCNU) has joined the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and other provincial nurses’ unions across the country for a National Day of Action to demand the provincial and federal governments take action on the national nursing shortage, among other asks,” BCNU spokesperson Shawn Leclair told The Progress.
Coulter did come out and speak with the nurses for over an hour, something that Greidanus said was appreciated.
“I told them that I would bring their concerns – especially the Chilliwack-specific concerns – to the health minister,” Coulter said. “Mostly, I listened to the nurses.”
Most nurses will not go on record complaining about working conditions at hospitals. One nurse privately told The Progress it’s because they face disciplinary hearings with the health authorities if they talk to the media.
As an ER doctor, Greidanus has more freedom to speak, but he is also far from alone as a doctor in expressing serious concerns about what many says is a crisis. The Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians (CAEP) issued a press release two weeks ago on this topic.
In it the CAEP said a “perfect storm” has arrived and engulfed doctors and nurses in emergency departments (EDs) across the country.
“This storm has been brewing for many years,” the CAEP release says. “Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, ED patients in Canada were facing long waits, with admitted patients blocking beds, limiting access to care for sick patients in the waiting room and on ambulance gurneys in hallways.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have heard ED staff described as health-care heroes, but in truth many are suffering from PTSD and are poised to leave their profession.”
Nurses are often left to perform the most highest risk procedures, such as intubation of COVID patients before they are admitted to intensive care units.
“Our ED nurses have borne the brunt of these challenges, assisting our doctors, while supporting their patients as they suffered alone, with no relatives allowed.”
The CAEP is warning that hundreds of nurses across Canada have already resigned and an “unprecedented” number of others are planning to leave the profession.
The CAEP has a list of strong recommendations, starting with an urgent federal-provincial dialogue directed at providing support to emergency departments across Canada during the fourth wave.
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