Critical care nurses in southern Ontario have reached a breaking point after they say more than a year and a half of brutal pandemic work and stagnant pay has led to a staffing shortage so severe they believe it’s putting patients in danger.
And as the fourth wave begins, with the number of COVID-19 cases in Ontario hitting 639 on Monday, they say they don’t know how they or their hospitals will cope.
The nurse behind the Instagram account @nursewithsign416, which shares images of nurses, their families and other health professionals holding signs describing the importance of experienced nurses and how burned out they are, along with the hashtag #RNsilentnomore.
Many of the posts are demanding Premier Doug Ford’s government repeal Bill 124, 2019 legislation that capped annual salary increases for many public sector employees, including nurses, at an average of one percent annually for three years.
The Ministry of Health said it has recently announced $61 million in funding to train, recruit and hire thousands of registered and practical nurses. The province also provided nurses with a four-month pandemic pay salary top-up in 2020 and is working to provide mental health support for front-line healthcare workers.
“Our government is incredibly grateful for the contributions of Ontario’s health care workers and the critical role they have played throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, providing patients with timely, safe and equitable access to high-quality care,” said ministry spokesperson David Jensen.
The Toronto nurse says it’s “inaccurate” to suggest Bill 124, which applies to nurses, teachers and many other public sector employees, caps wage increases at one percent a year as they can still get raises for seniority and performance.
The Toronto nurse said that while she’s at the top of the pay scale, her one percent raise has translated to 47 cents an hour, even though she’s doing the most dangerous and stressful work of her career.
Two doctors who’ve worked alongside the Toronto nurse and support her campaign told CBC News they’ve seen emergency departments close entire wings because there are not enough nurses to attend those beds, meanwhile acute patients wait on stretchers in hallways.
Dr. Raghu Venugopal, a Toronto emergency physician, said he’s seen three nurses care for up to 25 patients at a time. On a recent shift, he witnessed a man have a seizure without any privacy while other patients, including a small child, watched in shock.
“The nursing shortage is absolutely brutal,” he said. “I can’t emphasize enough how serious the situation is in acute health care right now. And the impact on patients and their families and health-care providers is very real.”
The Ontario Hospital Association spokesperson Hannah Ward said it’s been working closely with hospitals, colleges and universities to understand the pandemic’s impact on healthcare staff and to rebuild the workforce.
“Dedicated and highly skilled health care workers continue to go above and beyond the call of duty under these extraordinary circumstances,” Ward said. “And hospitals are grateful to them as they do everything in their power to protect and care for Ontarians.”
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