The shortage of nurses working in hospitals and long-term care homes across New Brunswick is worsening, according to the union that represents them.
Since April, the number of vacant nursing positions in the province jumped to 854 from 700 across the Horizon and Vitalité health networks and in long-term care homes, says Paula Doucet, president of the New Brunswick Nurses Union.
"Sadly, the thermometer is moving in the wrong direction as far as replacing these vacancies with registered nurses," she said.
Across New Brunswick, hospitals in recent months have had to reduce the operating hours of their emergency departments, citing a shortage of nurses and other health-care staff as the reason.
Doucet said the vacancies include nurses who are out on short-term and long-term sick leave, some who are retiring, some who are taking jobs outside the province and others who are quitting the profession altogether.
"Which is a sad state of affairs, but the working conditions, I believe, and the shortage is pushing nurses out the door at a rapid pace," she said.
Staffing on 'life support'
Doucet said the health-care system was already on "life support" with regard to staffing shortages, but the COVID-19 pandemic made it worse.
"For the registered nurses that have been showing up each and every day short [of staff], with the added stress, with the whole piece around the lockdown and the outbreaks that our province had faced in recent months ... that all plays on the mental health of health-care providers," she said.
Doucet said recent reductions in ER hours at hospitals such as those in Perth-Andover, Sackville and Moncton could just be the "tip of the iceberg" in the staffing crisis unless more is done to recruit and retain nurses.
She said there need to be adequate seats in the nursing programs at New Brunswick universities, along with good working conditions and comparable wages when students graduate, so they'll choose to stay and practise in the province.
Doucet said the province and health authorities need to be "very aggressive" and think outside the box when it comes to recruitment, but noted it will be difficult, considering every other province is also facing a nurse shortage.
"I don't know if we're going to see the end of this shortage any time soon, but I think we need to be thinking about how do we deliver health care to those within our province," she said.
70 international nurses destined for N.B.
Bruce Macfarlane, spokesperson for the Department of Health, said in an email that the government is "not standing still" in addressing health-care staffing shortages.
He said specific initiatives include incentives for hard-to-fill registered nurse positions and an "international educated nurses" pilot project, in which 70 nurses from outside the country will be part of a bridging program that will enable them to become registered nurses in the province.
He said the department is also involved in partnerships with the health authorities to recruit nurses domestically.
Macfarlane said recruitment figures from June show Horizon Health Network has hired 106 new registered nursing graduates so far in 2021, and Vitalité Health Network has recruited 100 new registered nurses who will start between now and September.
Network recruiting on three fronts
Of the 106 new nurses hired, 91 are graduates of the University of New Brunswick and the University of Moncton, said Geri Geldart, vice-president of clinical services with Horizon Health Network, in an email statement.
"Despite these efforts, we are still experiencing a critical shortage of nurses, with approximately 650 nursing vacancies across Horizon," he said.
Vitalité spokesperson Thomas Lizotte, in an email, deferred to a news release the health authority issued on June 16 regarding the staffing shortages.
In that release, Johanne Roy, acting vice president of human resources for Vitalité, said that the health network is actively pursuing recruiting strategies provincially, nationally and internationally.
"The network is continuing its strategies for recruiting and support of a culture of caring and appreciation that will benefit staff retention," she said.