Eastern Ontario health-care workers are speaking up about demoralizing work conditions following a wave of protests against COVID-19 vaccines and mandatory vaccination policies — including one last week outside The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus.
Protestors clustered outside the Carling Avenue entrance to the hospital's emergency department on Sept. 1, but unlike elsewhere in the country, neither police nor the hospital reported any harassment or obstruction of emergency services.
Most other hospitals across the region were untouched by protests, although a spokesperson for the Kingston General Hospital said a similar demonstration is planned to go ahead there on Tuesday.
Even so, health-care workers like Leslie-Anne McDonald said the protests have an "enormous" impact, both on caregivers and patients.
"You question your profession and if you should be in it," said McDonald, a nurse at the cardiac rehabilitation program in Cornwall, Ont. "I have, anyway, for the first time."
Anti-mandatory vaccine protests have been staged across the country in recent weeks, including one near Queen's Park in Toronto.
But the most recent protests outside hospitals have prompted condemnations from medical associations.
"I've heard from many of my colleagues, and I think the best word to use is devastated," said Dr. Katherine Smart, president of the Canadian Medical Association.
"They're not the policy or decision makers on some of these issues ... They're just working around the clock trying to save peoples' lives."
Worker burnout predates protests, pandemic
Emergency room volumes in eastern Ontario are higher than would be expected for this time of year, said Alan Drummond, an emergency and family physician in Perth, Ont.
Drummond, who is also chair of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, said staffing shortages that predate the pandemic have made it difficult for workers to cope with the increased patient volume.
Workers are also experiencing increased verbal and physical abuse on the job, Drummond said, with many reevaluating their careers.
"We're probably at a tipping point, which is why these protests aren't exactly welcome," he said. "It's just disheartening and demoralizing, frankly, to see these protests going on."
Past the tipping point
Staff shortages and burnout are problems outside the region as well, said Ivy Bourgeault, a professor at the University of Ottawa and director of the Canadian Health Workforce Network.
"The first, second, third, and fourth waves now have had a cumulative impact on the exhaustion of health workers, who already had endemic levels of burnout prior to the pandemic," said Bourgeault.
"Things were awful, and got atrocious."
In the past, she said, Ontario would recruit from other provinces or countries. But with COVID-19 taxing health-care systems around the world, that could soon cease to be a viable option.
"There is a huge societal concern, among a variety of different decision makers, that we are going to have a shortage like we have never seen before," she said.
Drummond said ER nurses require years of training and work experience, and his hospital is already hurt by departures.
"Nurses are voting with their feet," he said "And they're not willing to put up with these conditions any longer."