The central Newfoundland COVID-19 outbreak is taking a toll on registered nurses in the region, says their union, as it adds its voice to mounting calls for the province to deal with chronic health-care staffing shortages in Newfoundland and Labrador.
With three separate clusters in the Central Health region and 11 COVID-19 patients in the hospital in Grand Falls-Windsor as of Wednesday, "right now they are being pushed to their limits," said Yvette Coffey, the president of the Registers Nurses' Union Newfoundland Labrador.
There is extra demand at testing sites, at staff vaccination clinics and to care for the hospitalized patients, she said.
As that workload spiked, she said Central Health did make some changes — like bringing in registered nurses from other regions of the province, transferring some COVID-19 patients to St. John's and delaying some other surgeries and procedures.
"They are adjusting and pivoting as needed in order to make sure that we have enough resources to care for those patients and that the staff — the nursing staff —are not feeling overwhelmed," Coffey told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning Thursday.
Health Minister John Haggie said Wednesday the outbreaks have added "significant stress" to COVID-19 and intensive care units in the region. A Central Health spokesperson said in an email, "we now find ourselves in a place where the strain on our resources has compounded."
While nurses concerns have been heard in this instance, Coffey said, the overall workload problem isn't a surprise, isn't new — and isn't being addressed.
"The workload on nurses for the past 19 months, two years, you know, has been growing. Prior to this, we were already starting to see the nursing shortage creeping in there. And we were warning about it," she said.
The Central Newfoundland clusters have aggravated nursing shortages across Newfoundland and Labrador, she said. Those shortages made themselves known in temporary admission closures to long-term care centres in June and nurse rallies across the province — and the country — in September.
"Registered nurses and nurse practitioners are exhausted, both physically and mentally," said Coffey.
To avoid 24-hour shifts, she said some nurses are sometimes working 16-hour or 20-hours shifts instead, then heading home for as little as four hours before reporting back to work again.
According to Coffey, there are 500 nursing job vacancies, and about 900 nurses planning to retire or leave the sector in the next three years. The province also holds the dubious distinction of the highest rate of casual nurses in Canada, she said, due to "deteriorating workplace conditions."
"We have over 1,000 registered nurses who ... do not want to take permanent positions because they see that now as a risk versus an opportunity. Because once you take a permanent position, they feel that they are held captive," she said.
'We don't see any plan'
Coffey called for a larger strategy from the provincial government.
"We need immediate recruitment and retention strategies for nursing," she said.
"We don't see any recruitment campaign. We don't see any plan for recruiting registered nurses into this province."
A nursing strategy needs to be part of a larger human resources plan for health care, she said.
Meanwhile, the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, representing the province's physicians, says an access-to-information request for such a plan turned up little.
Health Minister John Haggie continues to refuse to answer questions about it.
Coffey said there needs to be active campaigning for staff. With nursing shortages across the country, other provinces have stepped up their efforts — Quebec launched a $1 billion health-care recruitment plan last month — and she wants Newfoundland and Labrador to get more organized.
"We need a coming together of all stakeholders to get everybody in the one room, and we need to come up with some strategic plans."