Nurses union says 83% of its members report staffing shortage as fresh COVID-19 wave looms

·4 min read
As COVID-19 hospitalizations in Saskatchewan have begun to climb, the union representing 10,000 nurses says its members are reporting widespread staff shortages.  (Cory Herperger/CBC - image credit)
As COVID-19 hospitalizations in Saskatchewan have begun to climb, the union representing 10,000 nurses says its members are reporting widespread staff shortages. (Cory Herperger/CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan's nurses are on edge as the province veers toward what experts have said is a seventh wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the province.

There's a fear that the health-care system isn't prepared for what might lie ahead.

One of the largest issues is proving to be staffing, according to the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses (SUN),

"We know that there is a shortage. We know there are problems, our members have told us that," said Denise Dick, first vice president of SUN.

The union, which oversees 10,000 registered nurses, nurse practitioners and registered psychiatric nurses in the province, recently publish data it collected this spring.

It shows that 83 per cent of SUN's members reported vacant positions in their units, a figure that is more than double the 40 per cent who reported vacant positions last year

'They can't sustain it'

Dick says nurses have faced staffing shortages in Saskatchewan for years. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made it worse.

Now, 58 per cent of SUN's members say they've considered stepping away from registered nursing in the past 12 months.

"People, like the numbers say, aren't willing to work like that anymore. They don't want to sustain that. They can't sustain it," Dick said.

Officials with the Saskatchewan Health Authority confirmed to Radio-Canada that some health-care workers have left the province while others have decided to leave the field altogether.

While the SHA declined to provide specific figures it did say it is working on solutions to address the issue.

"That's part of our overall [human resources] strategy: To identify how can we retain the employees that we have to create a good, positive working environment, but also look at recruitment opportunities, whether that's internationally or promoting locally," said John Ash, executive director of urban acute care with the SHA.

For the short term that also means tracking staff absenteeism and managing any shortages that do happen.

Measures could include service disruptions if certain facilities or areas don't have the ability to provide a service due to staffing issues.

It's a procedure that existed before COVID-19 but has been used more frequently during the pandemic, Ash said.

Latest indications of a COVID-19 surge

The latest data obtained by CBC News shows that COVID-19 hospitalizations — and the strain being put on the health- care system — are already increasing.

The graph below traces the number COVID-related hospitalizations in Saskatchewan throughout 2021.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Saskatchewan during 2021

At the beginning of the year, Saskatchewan was providing daily updates on figures including hospitalizations. As more time has passed data has been provided less frequently by the province explaining the growing gap between dots in the graph over the course of the year.

Saskatchewan reported 417 COVID-19 hospitalizations on April 20. Since then the province has seen a week-by-week drop in that figure.

But the most recent data obtained by CBC News shows that as of July 22, 147 people were in hospital with COVID-19.

That's a 24-per-cent increase from the the last publicly reported piece of data, which showed 119 hospitalizations on June 29.

Fear the system might collapse

Dick says she is afraid that as more nurses leave the system will collapse.

She believes that SUN has not asked much from the province, only that it supports them as the tough times continue.

"If they just knew they were being heard — that somebody was listening to their concerns about what's happening in their facilities, what's happening with healthcare in this province," Dick said.

According to Cheryl Pollard, the dean of the faculty of nursing at the University of Regina, hope remains.

Pollard says that enrolment in nursing has increased during the pandemic, while the U of R's nursing program has introduced courses that are designed to better prepare students for the work required in a pandemic.

"This is one of the reasons why I'm so proud to be in Sask., because we believe in service and believe in serving our community. Certainly the nursing students, they have got that," Pollard said.

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