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SOS – northern health care in critical condition due to nursing shortage: mayors

‘We need to get this staffing shortage fixed, like ASAP,” says mayor of Gillam, where 7 of 13 nursing positions were vacant on Nov. 1
thompsn mayor colleen smook public library october 2021
Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook, seen here speaking at the Thompson Public Library in October, says nursing shortages in Thompson and elsewhere in the north are affecting the level of medical care that residents receive.

The Manitoba Nurses Union (MNU) is sending out an “SOS” as they continue to deal with critical nursing shortages in Northern Manitoba that they say are leading to increasingly desperate situations in some communities.

In a Nov. 26 tweet, the union, which represents more than 12,000 nurses across the province, said that they were sending an “SOS from the North.”

“We're desperate for help in Lynn Lake, Gilliam & Snow Lake,” the Tweet read. “Nurses are needed to cover day & night shift needs. People are left in vulnerable situations with NO access to healthcare services if nurses aren't able to cover these shifts. SOS ... We are drowning.”

Numbers sent to the Winnipeg Sun by the Northern Regional Health Authority (NRHA) do paint a grim picture of nursing vacancies in the north, as the overall vacancy rate in the region for registered nurses sits at 22 per cent, but those rates are much higher in some remote communities, including Gillam.

At the hospital in Gillam, a town of about 1,200 residents that sits between Thompson and Churchill, more than half of nursing positions are not filled, as numbers sent Dec. 3 show only six of the 13 nurse positions filled.

The vacancies are far worse in the northern community of Lynn Lake where there is currently an 80 per cent nursing vacancy rate.

Gillam Mayor Dwayne Forman said it is an “attraction and retention” issue leading to the ongoing shortages in the north and said the province and NRHA officials need to do more when looking for ways to both hire and retain nurses.

He also believes that dollars must be invested in those efforts.

“There has to be some further retention benefits they can add to bring them our way,” Forman said. “The province and the Northern Health Region need to work together on this, even if it takes a budgetary increase.

“Whatever it takes, we need to get this staffing shortage fixed, like ASAP.”

He added that he has heard that the shortages at the hospital in Gillam go beyond the nurses.

“It’s all across the board at that hospital, we don’t have cooking staff, we don’t have cleaning staff,” Forman said.

“It’s across the board we are having issues.”

And while retention is a problem, Forman also believes more needs to be done to attract the kinds of people who would be comfortable in the north and incentive ideas need to go beyond monetary compensation.

“It takes a special breed to come out here and live in the north where it is winter eight months out of the year. You have to be someone who really enjoys the outdoors and enjoys the lifestyle out here.

“It can’t be all about the money.”

The situation in Thompson is not as bad as it is in Gillam or Lynn Lake, as they currently have a nursing vacancy rate of approximately 29 per cent, but Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook said those vacancies in Thompson and all over the north directly affect the level of care that people are receiving.

“Longer wait times for appointments and emergency room visits and nurses on the floor not being available for the extra attention beyond needed care is what we see,” Smook said.

The NRHA provided a statement to the Winnipeg Sun claiming there are numerous factors leading to the current shortages, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Staffing across the health system, both within and outside Manitoba, has been challenged by the prolonged COVID-19 response,” an NRHA spokesperson said in a Dec. 3 email.

“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.”

The spokesperson did say that NRHA is focused on looking for ways to attract and retain employees.

“Recruitment and retention efforts are a normal focus for our health region, using a number of means including regular media, social media, HR avenues and provincial casual pool recruitment to bolster our workforce,” the spokesperson said.

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

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the government of Canada.

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