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Northern nursing shortages causing suffering for patients and health care workers

30 per cent of registered nurse positions are vacant in Thompson, while in Lynn Lake four of five jobs are empty.
nurse helping elderly patient stand up from bed
One-quarter or more of registered nurse and licensed practical nurse positions in the Northern Regional Health Authority were vacant as of Nov. 1.

Nurses and the patients who rely on their services are both suffering due to a shortage of them in many northern communities, say the NDP and the Manitoba Nurses Union (MNU).

On Nov. 1, 24 of 84 licensed practical nurse (LPN) positions in the Northern Regional Health Authority were vacant (close to 30 per cent), while 91 of 362 registered nurse (RN) positions were unfilled (25 per cent).

51 of 159 health care aide positions were also vacant in the north, as were 13 of 62 home care health care aide positions and one of four pharmacist positions.

“Nurses are the backbone of our health care system,” said NDP leader Wab Kinew, who raised the issue of vacant rural nursing positions in the legislature Nov. 26. “Without them, we can't sustain a health care system or deliver the quality patient care Manitobans deserve. Years of Brian Pallister's cuts to rural health care created this shortage, and no one believes the new PC leader, who helped him carry out his cuts as health minister, will fix the damage. We have to start with hiring nurses and  building a long-term strategy to fix the nursing shortage.”

A Facebook post by the MNU on Nov. 26 said that management is making urgent requests for nurses to cover day and night shits in northern communities such as Snow Lake, Gillam and Lynn Lake, the last of which had three of four LPN and four of five RN positions empty at the beginning of the month.

“This is how short northern communities are,” said the MNU post. “Without services, our people are left in a vulnerable situation with NO access to healthcare services if nurses are not able to cover these shifts. If nurses do step up to cover these shifts, it in turn leaves other areas throughout the region short. It's a no-win situation. SOS...we are drowning.”

One-third of 24 LPN positions in Thompson were empty Nov. 1, as were 49 pf 167 RN jobs and at least 20 per cent of health care aide and home care health care aide positions. Only one of three RN positions in Leaf Rapids was filled, while seven of 13 RN positions in Gillam were vacant.

An NRHA spokesperson said a major reason for the high vacancy rates is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has stretched for over 20 months in Manitoba.

“Staffing across the health system, both within and outside Manitoba, has been challenged by the prolonged COVID-19 response. Manitoba health-care workers have stepped forward to support numerous new roles created as part of pandemic response (including to support screening, contact tracing and vaccination efforts) in addition to supporting both traditional and COVID-related care needs for our population. In Northern Manitoba this is especially true, given our geographic location and the distance between our communities and the larger populations of southern Manitoba.”

Recruitment efforts are always ongoing, said the spokesperson, in times of shortage or not.

“Challenges do remain at a number of sites and we are working as a region to support our ability to provide reliable, ongoing services,” he said.

When needs are particularly acute at a certain facility, management can either try to find workers to cover empty shifts voluntarily or temporarily change their work locations.

“At times, in order to support the care needs of a particular facility or service, we rely upon callouts to staff to pick up shifts, or look at opportunities to either reassign or redeploy staff temporarily,” the spokesperson said. “Each of these options involves a full clinical impact and operational assessment.”

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