A British Columbia health authority says it is facing a severe nursing shortage in a northern city as staff face criticism from COVID-19 protesters.
Northern Health, which covers the northern half of B.C., says that other nurses are being diverted to the emergency room, which is affecting care in other wards.
That means in some areas of the hospital, there may only be one nurse available on a shift, according to the authority.
The health authority described the shortage as 'troubling,' and said the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened stress and contributed to longer wait times for emergency room patients.
Officials are urging residents to get COVID-19 vaccinations to help ease the load on health-care workers.
Though health-care workers have been described as 'heroes' over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Northern Health says staff are facing "brutal criticism" and insults from the public while on shift.
"This is unacceptable," the health authority said in a Facebook post.
"Every day when they show up for work, they are putting the needs of the community of Fort St. John ahead of their own and those of their families at home. We implore people to be kind, patient, and respectful of these staff members and the situation they are facing."
Northern Health says it is working to hire new nurses and fill empty positions. This week the province announced more than $6 million in new funding for the authority to help attract and retain health workers such as nurses.
It adds that it's anticipating a further four new hires in January, but that does not address immediate concerns.
The shortage isn't exclusive to Fort St. John according to others. A nurse in Prince George says health-care workers have been predicting a nursing shortage for the entire region for years.
"I've been nursing for 15 years, and I'm going to tell you this is by far the worst it's ever been," said Tracey Jonkers.
"We've always had short staffing issues in the past, but the last 18 months has just shone a light on it."
Jonkers is a licensed practical nurse in the family medicine unit at the University Hospital of Northern B.C. She says that when she goes to work this week, she already knows there won't be enough staff working and she won't get a break until four hours into her shift.
"We're just trying to gain the courage and the confidence and not freak out too much knowing that we have to go to work tomorrow," she said.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said workforce challenges have been exacerbated in the northern health region as it deals with the highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita in the province, but recruitment has traditionally been more difficult there.
On Tuesday, the B.C. government announced incentives like child care and support for housing and travel as part of a recruitment drive in the northern region.
Mayor calls for audit of Northern Health
Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman is calling for an audit of Northern Health, which oversees the hospital.
"For the last 10, 12 years, there has been inadequate and inappropriate funding and attention paid to the health-care system in Northern B.C.," Ackerman said.
"I don't know what an audit would find in this situation. I'm not an expert in it, but I do know that an audit can pull out the good, the bad and the ugly, and I think that if we've got a situation that is this dire, we need to be brave enough to ask the questions."
She also suggests health officials revisit the 2018 report on rural nursing, compiled by then Auditor General of B.C., Carol Bellringer. It offered nine recommendations for Northern Health, including offering more nursing education programs in the north and developing a recruitment and retention strategy.