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Winnipeg hospitals still struggling with nursing shortage, high vacancy rates

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As Manitobans continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care officials have been dealing with another crisis: a continued nursing shortage. Global's Brittany Greenslade has the details.

As Manitobans continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care officials have been dealing with another crisis: a continued nursing shortage.

It’s a problem that has been persistent and consistent over the past few years but it’s now an issue the nurses’ union says has become much, much worse.

“It has basically been the perfect storm, which has caused us to go from a chronic nursing shortage to a critical nursing shortage,” Manitoba Nurses’ Union president Darlene Jackson told Global News.

At the end of 2019, Winnipeg hospitals had nursing vacancy rates that ranged between eight per cent at Concordia and almost 19 percent at St. Boniface Hospital.

Since then, the numbers have slightly improved in some areas, but not by much overall. They now range from nearly 11 per cent to almost 16 per cent.

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Health Minister Cameron Friesen has previously stated that eight per cent is considered a “normal” nurse vacancy rate.

SiteVacancy rate July 2020
HSC15.1%
Concordia11.7%
Grace14.8%
Seven Oaks10.4%
St. Boniface15.7%
Victoria General10.7%

But Jackson said when you look at specific units, there are some that are seeing a vacancy rate of almost one in four.

“That is a huge impact on nurses because, at the end of the day, someone still has to work that shift,” she said. “Someone still has to be there to provide the care.”

Jackson said nurses are having to work higher amounts of mandated involuntary overtime and there has been an “unprecedented use of private agency nurses.”

“The workloads have increased, the expectations have increased,” she said.

“Some nurses, they just weren’t willing to do that. And so we saw many nurses retire — experienced, talented nurses left the system.”

While the numbers continually change as people retire or leave the industry, among other factors, these snapshots still take a picture of what Manitoba’s health-care system is dealing with.

“This snapshot is showing exactly the same thing,” Jackson said.

“We’re in a nursing shortage and it doesn’t matter when you take that snapshot. We’re in a nursing shortage and we are not recovering from it.”

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Click to play video 'Manitoba nurses worry about lack of ICU space, staffing vacancies' Manitoba nurses worry about lack of ICU space, staffing vacancies
Manitoba nurses worry about lack of ICU space, staffing vacancies

The province said that while it is working on improvements, it’s clear there is still work to be done.

“We continue to monitor it,” chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa said. “There are always going to be hotspots that come up and we will work to address it and it’s better than it was, but there’s always room for improvement.”

There has been a lot of work happening behind the scenes over the past year to try to address the shortage, but it takes time, said Siragusa.

“Certainly a lot of work has been done in the last year to look at how we recruit and retain people,” Siragusa said. “Also streamlining the processes so we can hire them quickly.”

She said there has been a lot of work done in critical care, one area that has seen high vacancy rates, to try to recruit more nurses.

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Read more: Winnipeg’s hospitals over-capacity as flu season grips the city, WRHA says

“There’s been a lot of work towards reaching out to people and the increase in nurses taking the critical care course has been amazing,” she said.

Both the union and Siragusa admit that when the province started its health-care consolidation years ago, it had a major impact on the front line.

“During that period, we noticed many nurses leaving the system, either going to maybe work at a private clinic or somewhere private,” Jackson said. “Many other nurses who were at that stage in their life said, ‘You know what, I’m done. I’m, I’m not working.'”

Siragusa said the province is working on a new nursing strategy that has a steering committee, made up of nurses from all over the system, to work on improvements.

“Healing our health-care system was a disruptive time. Change is hard,” Siragusa said.

“I think trust is built over time and the commitment to nursing, that’s ongoing work we are working right now.”

The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority refused to comment or provide a statement to Global News regarding the issue.