‘Walk a mile in our shoes’: 24-hour shifts, cancelled vacations, job vacancies highlight B.C. nursing crisis

VANCOUVER — Frontline health-care workers across B.C. are painting a dire picture of hospitals struggling to function amidst serious staffing shortages, with nurses facing the biggest crunch as COVID-19 hospitalizations once again surge

CTV News Vancouver has spoken with hospital workers at various levels and job descriptions, who say after 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, shifts are going unfilled across departments — from operating rooms to labs to janitorial personnel. It’s affecting morale and sometimes jeopardizing patient safety, the workers say.

Some workers have quit in what the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions describes as a crisis. The federation has called for a national day of action next month to highlight the fact that “nurses and health-care staff are overworked, underpaid, burnt out, and suffering moral distress because there are not enough staff to provide the care patients deserve.” 

In B.C., the provincial nurses’ union says years of dealing with the challenges of the opioid epidemic, more than a year of labouring under sweaty and restrictive personal protective equipment while worrying for their families’ safety, and now struggling to care for patients suffering from heat waves, wildfire smoke and the fourth wave of COVID-19, have nurses at a breaking point

“I heard just the other day that some nurses are being mandated to work 24 hours,” said British Columbia Nurses Union vice-president Aman Grewal of the shifting required to cover vacant positions or unfilled shifts.

“For some, when they thought they’d have a break, they didn’t get that break. They’re now being told their vacation is being cancelled and they have to come back to work.”

Nurses in Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the Okanagan told CTV News some shifts are so short-staffed — particularly as hospitals try to catch up on cancelled surgeries — they fear for patient safety.

“It’s going to take longer to get to that patient and meet that patient’s needs, so it is impacting them,” said Grewal. “During the heat dome, nurses at one site were down half their workforce. Out of 39 nurses, only 19 were working on that particular weekend. Can you imagine if you were working with half your staffing?”

CTV News has asked Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health for statistics on open job postings for nursing positions, but did not recieve them by the time of publishing.

SURGICAL RENEWAL BLAMED FOR COMPOUNDING CRISES

B.C.’s Minister of Health has made it a priority to make up for surgeries cancelled last year when hospitals were cleared in anticipation of an overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients. Surgeries had resumed when the third wave hit, prompting a new round of cancellations as hospitals were overwhelmed, leading to and more catch-up down the road. 

A number of health-care workers described the pressure and stress of trying to perform the same number of surgeries, despite the many restrictions of working with PPE and enhanced sanitation requirements. They described the surgical renewal effort as unrealistic and damaging, and said it is exacerbating the dual crisis of short-staffed workers struggling with shattered morale. 

“When Adrian Dix said he wanted to push this program, I just thought, ‘You come and walk a mile in our shoes,’” said Morley Postuk, a 42-year nursing veteran who filed for early retirement in June.

“Every nurse and every physician, they’re all exhausted from [the pandemic],” Postuk said. “People are just sick to death of it and now they want us to work harder and longer.” 

Postuk explained that with layers of personal protective equipment — including N95 masks and double gloves for surgeries — even taking a bathroom or coffee break takes longer due to disrobing and re-gowning. Hospital staff are often sweating shortly after starting their shifts, which often occur at full speed, without breaks, she added.

“You move equipment, you move patients, it’s exhausting. Physically exhausting,” she said. “Sometimes, I’d put in 10, 12,000 steps a day just in an operating room running around. We’re beyond pots and pans. We need staff. We need help and we do not need to be pushing the people who are still there to the brink of exhaustion and burnout.” 

Her comments echoed those of nurses who asked that their names be withheld for fear of professional repercussions for speaking up.

GOVERNMENT RESPONDS

When CTV News raised the issue of the surgical renewal program adding unrealistic expectations to a beleaguered workforce, Dix defended the strategy.

“This is a really difficult time for everyone and we’re doing our best to support people by delivering the services, especially the surgical services that people in B.C. expect and deserve,” said Adrian Dix. “It is, of course, a challenge to meet the increasing demands of a society that is growing and that is aging, but I think we’ve done an exceptional job.” 

The province’s top doctor acknowledged the dedication of health-care workers, as well as the radical workplace shift that had to take place at the start of the pandemic, and what it has meant on a human level.

“Nurses have been on frontlines of this since the beginning,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, noting that in addition to nurses, doctors and other health-care staff have begun leaving the profession.

“They’ve had to access PPE, change the way that we interact with patients, whether it’s in a community setting or in a hospital,” Henry said. “The pressure that we have had as health-care workers through this pandemic has been over and above the pressures of trying to maintain families and relationships and all of the other things we as a community are dealing with.” 

While Henry empathized with them, she also urged health-care workers to keep running what amounts to a marathon with a moving finish line.

“I know from my personal experience in pandemics and crises we’ve seen that go on and on, it is not not surprising to see people burnt out,” she said. “We all want this to be over. We all wanted this to be over last summer and we have to deal with the reality.” 

B.C. reported 717 new COVID-19 infections on Friday, with the number of people in hospital doubling in just 10 days. 

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